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September 14, 2004

Recipe: Ma Po Tofu

One of my readers wants to know if I serve Ma Po Tofu at Shiok and if I know a recipe for a vegetarian version. (Sorry, dear lady, I seem to have accidentally trashed your email so I couldn't send a reply. I hope you will check back and read this recipe.)

Let's talk about Ma Po Tofu. It's a well-known dish from the Sichuan province of China, and in keeping with their reputation, is pretty strongly flavoured. As I've said in an earlier article, I am not the biggest fan of the bland flavour of tofu, but this dish is a wonderful spicy background for it. I love to have it with plain fried rice and some stir-fried veggies.

The original version is made with minced pork (or beef) which gives it a hearty flavour. As in most Chinese dishes, the meat is not added in large quantities, but just enough to lend its character to the dish. At Shiok, however, we make a proper vegetarian version of it by replacing the minced beef with minced fried tofu instead. While it doesn't give it the same flavour, it comes close to the texture of the meat. (We also reduce the oil considerably.)

Here's what it looks like:

Ma Po Tofu

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(As with all our food photos, this too is real food, not the fancy fake stuff often used in food photography.)

And here is the recipe...

What you need

Firm Tofu - 200 gm

Fried tofu (minced) - about 75 gm (replace with minced beef for the original version)

Chilli bean paste - 1.5 tbsp

Peanut oil - 3 tbsp

Fermented black beans - 2 tsp

Whole Sichuan red chillies - 6-10, depending on your chilli tolerance (see notes below)

Chicken stock or vegetable stock (unsalted) - 1/2 cup

Sugar - 1 large pinch

Light soy sauce - 1 tsp

Cornflour - 2 tsp mixed with 1 tbsp cold water

Sichuan peppercorns (ground) - 1/4 tsp

Spring onions (scallions) - chopped - 2 tbsp

How to make it

Cut the tofu into 1/2 inch cubes.

Heat a wok on high heat. When it's nice and hot, add the oil. Add the minced beef (or minced fried tofu) and stir-fry for about a minute on high heat. The beef should be brown on the outside but still have some cooking left.

With a spatula, move the beef to one side of the wok so the oil can drain back into the middle of the wok. Turn the heat down to medium. (If you don't, you will shortly start coughing till your lungs pop out.)

Now add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry for 30 seconds. The oil should turn red. Add the fermented black beans and red chillies and stir-fry for another 30 seconds. The oil should have a nice smell from all this seasoning.

Add the chicken or vegetable stock and stir it in. Then gently add the cut tofu to the liquid. Don't stir-fry this too much or the tofu could break apart. Try to hold the pan by its long handle and gently shake it back and forth.

Add the sugar and light soy sauce. Turn the heat down and simmer the mixture for about 5 minutes.

Depending on how thick the sauce is at this stage, stir in some of the cornflour-water mixture and turn up the heat to medium. The sauce should start to thicken. Add more of the mixture and cook till the sauce has the consistency slightly more runny than tomato ketchup. It should cling to the tofu nicely.

Stop the cooking at this stage, add the spring onions and mix.

Empty the dish into a hot bowl. Scatter with the powdered Sichuan peppercorns and serve.

Chef's Notes

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Yes, I know this dish uses some exotic ingredients. I expect many of you writing in to ask for substitutes, so I'll save you the trouble. There is no substitute for Sichuan peppercorns and if you live in USA, your government has banned it, so you will never find it. If you live anywhere else, try to get it. It won't be easy, and if you can't find it, just do without. Chilli bean sauce (or paste) should be available in your China Town. If not, try getting some yellow bean sauce and mixing in some red chilli paste.

This dish is supposed to be oily. I have cut down the amount of oil used in the original version by half. No, I'm not joking. Why would I? :)

The original recipe uses powdered Sichuan chillies. I've used whole ones so that you get the flavour without being overpowered by the chilli. If you can't get Sichuan chillies, try the hot variety of dried Indian red chillies and use a little less.

Saltiness is something in this dish that can vary widely. This is because the chilli bean paste, the fermented black beans, and the soy sauce all have salt in them which can be a big variable depending on the brands you use. Check the salt level once before adding the cornflour mixture. If it needs more salt, add it. If it's got too much, try adding a bit more sugar and maybe even some chilli. If you're using a commercial stock cube, then your dish may well be a salty mess.

I add a bit of garlic to most things, even though this recipe doesn't use it. You don't have to, but garlic doesn't need a reason.

If you can't find the ingredients you need, come try the dish at my restaurant. We have it all. ;)