From L., 20 January 2010, Ma po tofu: the real thing?
Q: My husband and I love eating Ma Po Tofu. Unfortunately the water-drowned, sweetened versions we get in the states doesn’t compare to the spicy Ma-La we have in Asia. Any way to replicate this Stateside? Any other sides you can recommend to make a meal out of it?
A: Thanks for your question. I know that a lot of people aren’t crazy about tofu, which on its own can be bland with a challenging texture, but ma po tofu has changed many a meat eater’s mind.
What is tofu, anyway? Tofu – bean curd or dòufu豆腐 in Chinese – is a soft, white, high protein food made by coagulating soy milk with gypsum, a chloride salt (nigari), or an acid, and pressing the resulting curds, much as one might prepare cheese. And – much like cheese – tofu ranges from soft, creamy, and custard-like, to solid and crean cheese-like, to firm and crumbly. In some countries, like Taiwan, tofu is fermented to produce a pungent, cheese-like substance (chòu dòufu 臭豆腐, or stinky tofu). The skin that forms when boiling soy milk – called yuba 湯葉 in Japanese or, colloquially, tofu skin – resembles sheets of dried tofu.
As a food of vegetable origin, tofu is a popular source of protein for vegetarians. That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s exclusively a vegetarian food. Ma po tofu, a classic Sichuan dish, combines tofu with ground pork, allowing the frugal cook to extend a small amount of meat for a filling and high protein meal.
You asked how to achieve that spicy, piquant taste of Asian ma po tofu here in the States, and why you’ve been missing it. Because ma po tofu comes from Sichuan province, its heat and zest come from two ingredients – hot red chiles, and Sichuan pepper, also known as sanshō 山椒 in Japan. Sichuan pepper provides a tingling, numbing sensation (caused by the chemical hydroxy-alpha-sanshool), as well as a lemony, citrus, overtone. It is not related to the black (or white) peppercorn.
Indeed, the combination of hot chile and Sichuan pepper is called “ma la” 麻辣, meaning “hot and spicy.” So if it’s that simple, why haven’t you been able to achieve that taste here in the States? Well, from 1968 until 2005, the Food and Drug Administration banned the importation of Sichuan pepper because of fears that the pepper could harbor citrus canker. Although the ban was never enforced all that strictly, and numerous food importers cheerfully ignored it, many Chinese restaurants ceased using Sichuan pepper during the ban and never took it up again.
Since it’s legal, you can feel free to add it to your food. Toast it before use, and then grind it – with or without salt. The best I’ve found come from Le Sanctuaire, but I don’t know if they sell it online. I’ve also seen excellent quality Sichuan pepper at The Spice House.
Ma po tofu
Use a soft tofu, which provides a creamier texture. The necessary pungency comes from chili bean paste – using chiles alone will make the dish hot but not rich and pungent tasting.
3/4 lb (about 400g) soft tofu
2 tsp minced ginger
2 tsp minced garlic
2 tbsp minced scallions
1-3 tiny red chiles (Thai are very hot; the larger the chile, the less hot), minced
1/2 lb (about 250 g) ground pork
2 tbsp chili bean paste
2 tbsp Shaoxing wine
3 tbsp soy sauce
Peanut oil or vegetable oil
scant 1 1/2 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp water
1/2 tsp ground toasted Sichuan pepper
Steamed white rice
Combine the water, salt, and cornstarch into a slurry in a small cup and set aside. You will need to stir it again before using. Also fill a measuring cup with 1 1/2 c cold water.
Cut the tofu into small cubes (1/2″ to 1″ depending on your preference).
Place a large shallow pan over medium high heat. When hot, add a couple of tablespoons of oil and then add the ginger and garlic. Saute until just fragrant; add the scallions and chiles and saute about 30 seconds more. Add the meat and fry, breaking up well, until brown; add the chili bean paste and the Shaoxing wine, and stir well, until fragrant.
Add the tofu and about 3/4 c of the cold water. Reduce the heat slightly and cook about 5 minutes, adding more water if the mixture is too thick. Add the cornstarch slurry and mix well to thicken, continuing to simmer over the heat. Add the Sichuan peppercorn.
Serve over the steamed rice with the sliced scallions. Sprinkle with additional Sichuan peppercorn, if you like.