Friday, August 5, 2011

Ma Po Tofu

Before I lived in China I was fairly certain that tofu was evil.  Well, maybe not evil but I certainly thought it was bland and far from delicious.  But once I was in China I realized that tofu can actually be really tasty.  It can also be very stinky, but that's beside the point.  Ma Po Tofu is one of my favorite tofu dishes (as well as one of my favorite Sichuan dishes).  But there are some really bad versions out there.  I have had one that I can think of in New York where the tofu was swimming in a puddle of very spicy, but otherwise flavorless oil.  And then I have had the truly phenomenal version at Little Pepper in Flushing. This version falls somewhere in the middle.  It was neither the best, nor the worst version of ma po tofu that I have ever eaten.  It was good, but it was missing the exact balance of flavors and spice that I enjoy in the best renditions of Sichuan cuisine.  Part of the problem was that our Sichuan peppercorns are getting old and have lost a lot of their pungency.  I think it's time to head out the Flushing for a fresh batch.  There wasn't as much of the slightly sour, numbing flavor of the Sichuan peppercorns as I wanted.  And Alex complained that the dish also didn't have enough chili flavor from the Sichuan chilis in the dish.  So it seems like lack of chili-flavor is our chief complaint.  It was also just a little too oily for me.  If I were to make the dish again I would definitely cut down on the amount of oil.  Other than that I just don't know...

Recipe after the jump!

Pock-Marked Mother Chen's Bean Curd (Ma Po Dou Fu)
Adapted from Land of Plenty
By Fuchsia Dunlop

1 block firm tofu (about 1 lb)
2 leeks, thinly sliced at a steep angle and then soaked in water
1/2 cup peanut oil
6 oz. ground pork
2 1/2 tbsp Sichuanese chili bean paste
1 tbsp fermented black beans
4-6 Sichuan chilis, coarsely crumbled
1 cup chicken stock
2 tsp white sugar
1 tbsp light soy sauce
salt to taste
4 tbsp cornstarch mixed with 6 tbsp cold water
1/2 tsp ground roasted Sichuan peppercorns

Cut tofu into 1-inch cubes and steep in lightly salted, gently simmering water.  

Add peanut oil to wok over high heat until smoking.  Add minced pork and stir-fry until the meat starts to get crispy around the edges and begins to turn golden brown.  Reduce heat to medium, add chili bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is a rich red color, about 30 seconds.  Add fermented black beans and Sichuan chilis and stir-fry until fragrant, for another 20-30 seconds.  Add stock, stir well, and add drained tofu.  Gently mix tofu into the stock mixture by pushing the tofu from the edge of the wok to the center with the back of your wok scoop.  Don't stir or the tofu will break up.  Season with sugar and soy.  Simmer until tofu has absorbed the flavors of the sauce, about 5 minutes.  Add leeks and gently stir in.  Season to taste with additional salt if necessary.  When they are just beginning to soften, add cornstarch mixture a little at a time, mixing well, until the sauce has thickened and clings glossily to the tofu. 

Pour tofu mixture into a deep bowl, scatter with ground Sichuan pepper, and serve with steamed rice.

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