Ma Po Tofu. Mapo Dofou. Mabo Dofu. 麻婆豆腐.
Whatever you want to call it - it's delicious.
Like most other foods indigenous to Sichuan, it's spicy. Very, very spicy. Which makes it delicious in my opinion. If that's not how you float your boat you can always tailor the heat level to your liking.
Apparently Ma po tofu stands for "pock-marked mother's tofu," or something along those lines. Not a great name, but that's OK. It more than makes up for it in awesomeness.
The characteristic flavor of ma po tofu stems from three integral ingredients.
1. Broad bean paste with chili:
It is possible to find chili bean paste made with soy beans, as opposed to broad/fava beans, but from what I've read the broad bean paste is what is used in Sichuan - and in effort to stay authentic as possible, that's what I use. Plus it's cheap. This jar lasts TA and I about 6 weeks (we make ma po tofu about once, sometimes twice per week) and it's only $3. You can find it in just about any Asian grocery store.
Don't be intimidated by the paste. Like fish sauce and oyster sauce it may take a while for it to grow on you, but once it does you won't be able to live without it - much like fish and oyster sauces. Additionally, your ma po tofu will not taste right if you don't use it.
2. Chinese Dried Red Chili Peppers:
Don't use fresh peppers. Don't go all crazy with the Mexican chilies. Just go to your Asian grocer and pick up a bag of these. You can see how big the bag is and it's only $1.85. You only use 3-4 chilies per recipe - you do the math.
Plus they're the perfect amount of spiciness - makes you sweat but won't stop your pacemaker. Well, unless you use half the bag.
3. Sichuan Peppercorns:
Sichuan peppercorns are the most important ingredient when attempting to make Sichuan cuisine. There is no substitution, there are no fakes. You must use Sichuan peppercorns.
After the FDA allowed their import again in 2005 (No it wasn't a ban about safety, there's no lead in your peppercorns, they were banned because of a fear that they could import a bacteria that attacks citrus trees. They're now treated to a heating process that kills any bad ju-ju before entering the US.) they've steadily become more widely available. As you can see from the above picture, I bought mine at World Spice. They have a great website and ordering from them is easy as pie. At only $2 per oz, you should stock up.
The funny thing about Sichuan peppercorns is that not only are they not actually peppercorns (they're the bud of a bush that grows throughout Asia), they contain hydroxy-alpha-sanshool. What that means is they cause the most intriguing tingling, numbing sensation in the mouth when eaten. The effect of the peppercorn is not heat, like most peppers, but a wonky numb feeling. It's great!
This is why these peppercorns are so integral to recreating Sichuan cuisine - nothing else can produce the numbing sensation that pairs so well with fiery Sichuan foods. Perhaps it's the numbness that allows them to eat such ungodly hot foods?
With those three ingredients you're well on your way to creating the perfect ma po tofu. Some recipes also include fermented black beans, but I haven't been able to find any. As soon as I do I'll be adding them in to see what happens and I'll be sure to update. So far, even without the fermented black beans, I've tailored this recipe until it is a very near copy of what TA and I have at Chinese restaurants.
Many recipes for ma po tofu also include ground meat of some sort - usually pork or beef. The first time TA had me try it, though, it was meatless and I still prefer that version. I still use chicken or beef stock whenever I make it, but this recipe could easily be made vegan with the substitution of vegetable stock.
All that being said, I hope you take the time to try this amazing dish. It's a kind of Chinese comfort food, from what I've been told. Like a Chinese mashed potatoes and gravy (god forgive me for that one). Ma po tofu has quickly become a menu staple in our house and hopefully it will in yours too.
Ma Po Tofu
Yields approximately four 1 ½ cup servings
1/2 tablespoon oil
4 scallions, chopped, white and green parts separated
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns (base amount, increase to your liking), toasted and ground finely in a coffee or spice grinder
3+ Chinese dried red peppers, depending on desired heat
2 carrots, finely chopped
4 oz mushrooms (about ten small button), chopped finely
3 tablespoons Broad Bean Paste with Chili
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
32 oz (about 4 cups) chicken/beef/vegetable stock
1 block medium firm tofu, in 1/2 inch cubes
2 tablespoons cornstarch
prepared rice to serve over
In a wide shallow pan (about 4 quarts) heat the vegetable oil over medium-high flame. Add the white parts of the green onion, the ground Sichuan peppercorn, and the dried red peppers. Cook for about 30 seconds, or until fragrant. Mix in the carrots and mushrooms. Add the broad bean paste, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and rice vinegar - stirring to combine thoroughly. Pour in the stock and mix in the tofu pieces, stirring gently so as not to break up. Bring to a boil, then simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. In a small dish add enough water to the cornstarch to make a slurry, then add to the pan. Boil for about 3 minutes further, or until thickened to a gravy-like consistency - stirring constantly to avoid gelling. Serve over rice.
This is a nutritional estimate, regard it as such.
1 serving = 1 1/4 cups ma po tofu, not including rice
14 g carbohydrates
6 g fat
15.5 g protein