This dish consisting of slippery cubes of bean curd in a rich scarlet sauce is an instantly recognizable Sichuanese classic. It's always a standout at my beloved Han Dynasty's monthly epic tasting dinners, and after attending the last one I consulted my Sichuan bible, Fuschia Dunlop's Land of Plenty, for a good recipe so I could satisfy the mapo tofu craving whenever it arose. The recipe is remarkably straightforward if you, like I, have collected a couple key ingredients - which is totally worth your time and investment to do if you like cooking this cuisine. I'm still scraping at the dregs of the giant jar of Pixian doubanjiang (authentic-as-it-gets Sichuan chili bean paste) my husband gifted me with two years ago (!), and will be instantly re-ordering when I finally run out. It lends its indelible fire and funk to not just this delicious mapo tofu, but to many other Sichuan dishes as well. I'm very happy to always have some on hand so that now, armed with this fantastic recipe, I can whip up a batch of mapo whenever the craving hits.
Ma Po Tofu
Makes 3 servings
Adapted from Fuschia Dunlop's Land of Plenty
*1 block tofu (12 oz to a pound), cubed
*Scant 1/2 cup peanut oil
*A couple ounces of ground pork
*1/4 cup chili bean paste
*1 clove garlic, minced
*1 small nub of ginger, minced
*1 tablespoon fermented black beans, rinsed
*1 cup chicken stock
*1 teaspoon sugar
*1 teaspoon finely ground roasted Sichuan peppercorns
*4 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 6 teaspoons cold water
*Light soy sauce
*3 scallions, 2 sliced in larger diagonal pieces and the final sliced thinly for garnish
*Sesame seeds for garnish
Put the tofu cubes in gently simmering salted water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Pour the peanut oil in a wok over medium-high heat and when it is nearly smoking, throw in the pork. Using a wooden spoon, break it up into small pieces and stir-fry for about 5 minutes or until the pork is beginning to brown and crisp. Reduce heat to medium and add the chili bean paste; stir fry for about 20 seconds before adding the beans, garlic and ginger. Continue cooking for another 20-30 seconds before pouring in the stock. Sprinkle in the sugar and peppercorns, and season with soy sauce (I use less than a teaspoon). Gently drain the tofu and add the cubes to the mix, stirring carefully to not break them up too much. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 5 or 6 minutes, stirring every now and again. Throw the larger pieces of scallion in about half-way through.
To thicken the sauce, add the cornstarch slurry a teaspoon at a time and mix well after each addition - only use as much as you need to thicken it to your desired consistency. Serve garnished with thinly sliced scallion and a spangle of sesame seeds, with rice.