Yes, ma po tofu is a spicy dish which is characteristic of Sichuan cooking. Not only is there heat from the chilies in thedoubanjiang and chili paste, there is also the numbing effect supplied by Sichuan peppercorns.
So, is that what the name translates to? Doesma pomean hot and spicy? Well, no.Mameans pockmarked andpois short forpopowhich means old woman. The dish we know today as ma po tofu is believed to have beeninventedin the late 1800s by a smallpox-scarred woman known as Mrs. Chen who cooked the dish at her family’s restaurant in Chengdu.
But don’t let the literal translation of the dish’s name form a bias in your mind. It’s delicious. The first time I had it at a Chinese restaurant, I was hooked, and I would look for it on the menu of almost every Chinese restaurant we ate in. Sadly, not all Chinese restaurants serve good ma po tofu. That was why I learned to cook it at home.
Sichuan peppercorn is an essential ingredient in this dish. To release its flavor, toast in an pan (no oil!) until aromatic then grind. Use a mortar and pestle or mini food processor.
The tofu is parboiled in salted water. This step removes the aftertaste of tofu which many people find unpalatable. The salt also permeated the tofu to flavor it.
The ground pork is browned in oil separately. This gives it better texture so that it doesn’t have the mouth feel of boiled meat when the dish is done. Browning also allows the natural sugars in the meat to caramelize to give it better flavor.
The meat is scooped out and, in the mixture of cooking oil and rendered pork fat, chopped garlic and ginger are sauteed.
Doubanjiang, Chinese broad bean chili paste is stirred in until blended with the oil. So, you have two layers of heat at this point. There’s heat from the ginger and heat from the doubanjiang.
Next comes fermented black beans which will give the dish a rich saltiness and deeper color. Cook, stirring, until the spice pastes separate from the oil.
The browned ground pork is stirred in until every bit is coated with oil and the spices. Watch what you’re cooking carefully because the spices can easily burn at this stage.
Broth is poured in. Yes, there’s broth. Without broth, the pork and tofu will burn in the spices before the dish is cooked. So, yes, there’s broth. Will water do? Well, yes, but you’ll get less flavor that way. Besides, broth is way more nutrient-rich than water. So, if you have broth, use it.
Now, the third layer of heat is added in the form of chili paste. Once blended with the sauce, the tofu is added and stirred in gently so as not to break the cubes unnecessarily.
To balance the saltiness and to mellow down the heat of the spices, we add a bit of sugar. And, for a rich umami taste, a little soy sauce.
Finally, cornstarch dissolved in water is poured in. The contents of the wok are stirred gently until the sauce is thick and no longer cloudy.
Ma Po Tofu
- 1 350-gram block silken tofu
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 250 grams ground pork
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
- ½ teaspoon chopped ginger
- 1 tablespoon doubanjiang - (broad bean chili paste)
- 1 tablespoon fermented black beans - mashed and chopped
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon chili paste
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon potato starch - or corn starch
- sliced scallions - to garnish
Pre-cook the tofu
- Cut the tofu into half-inch cubes.
- Boil about four cups of water and stir in a teaspoon of salt.
- Slide the tofu cubes into the boiling salted water, wait for the water to boil again then count one minute to cook the tofu.
- Drain the tofu and set aside.
Toast the Sichuan peppercorns
- Spread the Sichuan peppercorns in an oil-free pan and toast until you can smell them.
- Grind the Sichuan peppercorns until powdery.
Brown the ground pork
- Heat the cooking oil in a wok.
- Spread the ground pork in the hot oil, sprinkle in a teaspoon of salt and all of ground black pepper. Cook, stirring often, until lightly browned.
- Scoop out the ground pork leaving behind the oil and rendered fat.
Saute the spices
- Reheat the oil and fat in the wok.
- Saute the garlic and ginger until aromatic.
- Add the doubanjiang and continue sauteeing for about half a minute.
- Add the fermented black beans and continue sauteeing until the solids start to separate from the oil.
Cook your ma po tofu
- Add the browned ground pork and stir to coat with the sauteed spices.
- Pour in the broth, stir and bring to a simmer.
- Stir in the chili paste and sugar.
- Add the drained tofu cubes and stir gently.
- Sprinkle in half a teaspoon of the ground Sichuan peppercorns.
- Pour in the soy sauce.
- Set the heat to low, cover the pan and simmer everything together for a few minutes.
- Dissolve the starch a two tablespoons of water, pour into the pan and stir until no longer cloudy and the sauce is thick.
- Ladle your ma po tofu into a serving bowl.
- Sprinkle in the sliced scallions and serve your ma po tofu with rice.