Chris and I regularly eat out at Sichuan restaurants – it is one of our favorite Chinese cuisines and the bold flavours especially appeal to a Western palate (as long as you don’t mind spiciness). One of our favourite dishes is ma po doufu, Ma Po Tofu, a spicy tofu dish with a bit of ground pork, lots of chilies, and the signature Sichuan spice – Sichuan peppercorns.
Sichuan peppercorns are not only spicy, but they also have that characteristic Sichuanese tongue-numbing property known as ma la, or “numbing-spice”. It adds both heat and savory-ness to a dish, as well as a tingling sensation typical of Sichuan dishes. You can replace Sichuan peppercorns and still get a great-tasting tofu dish, but you won’t have Ma Po Tofu. The “ma” in the name of this dish is a pun referring both to the ma la taste, as well as the pockmarked old woman (ma po) who first invented the humble Ma Po Tofu, to satisfy travelers who passed by her little cottage.
Chris and I have this dish on average about once every two weeks, and it is a bargain at most restaurants, costing between 5 and 10 yuan (between $0.70 to $1.40 USD). So why would I want to recreate this dish at home? Why, to see that I can, of course.
I did a lot of recipe research on the Internet looking for an authentic recipe. Based on the ingredient lists, most recipes had been altered to suit Western palates and styles of cooking. But I wanted the real thing – I wanted to taste in my kitchen the same taste I taste in the Sichuan restaurant down the street. I finally settled on a recipe from Rasa Malaysia – the author learned this recipe from a friend whose mother had studied at the Sichuan Culinary School in Chengdu. I simplified the ingredient list a bit, because I distrust Chinese chili powder (sometimes it is colored with a red dye that is a banned carcinogen in most countries), and I don’t recall there being fermented black beans in the Ma Po Tofu we are accustomed to having.
And the result? Astonishing. I amazed myself. I thought it would be close, but not this close. I may never order Ma Po Tofu again. With a dish of stir-fried greens and steamed rice, this was our very satisfying dinner.
Ma Po Tofu
Adapted from Rasa Malaysia
Most or all of these ingredients are available from your local Asian grocery store.
1 block tofu (not silken)
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbsp vegetable oil (do not use olive oil as it does not have a high enough smoke point)
1 tbsp chili oil
3 tbsp chili bean paste
1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns (I used whole peppercorns, but if you have powdered Sichuan pepper, that will work too)
½ pound ground pork
1 tsp dried chili flakes or chopped dried red chilies
1 tbsp soy sauce
½ cup water
(To tone down the spiciness, omit the dried chili flakes and halve the Sichuan pepper.)
Drain the tofu and cut it into cubes. Set aside.
Over high heat, heat the vegetable oil and chili oil. When hot, add the garlic, chili bean paste, and dried chili flakes. Make sure your stove hood fan is on, as the spices get very aromatic. Add the ground pork and stir-fry until cooked.
Add the soy sauce and water, and then carefully add the cubed tofu. Let it simmer for a few minutes as the tofu steams, then gently stir the tofu into the sauce. Add the Sichuan pepper, and stir-fry for about 2 minutes until the sauce thickens. Serve immediately (you can garnish it with a sprinkling of scallions if you like).
Note: Chris calls Sichuan peppercorns “mind-numbing balls”, and they really are – your first time at least! If you aren’t used to Sichuan pepper, you probably want to avoid eating any whole peppercorns as they are pretty intense. We have found that the best way to do this is to use your chopsticks to pick up each cube of tofu from the dish instead of spooning it all into your bowl. Of course, if using powdered Sichuan pepper, this isn’t a problem.