My friends were recently in town to run the Disneyland Half Marathon with me and while dining at Mei Long Village - San Gabriel, I ordered Ma Po Doufu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) since my friends had never eaten it before. They were so enamored with the dish that I stopped off at the Asian grocery store and recommended they get some packages of House Foods Chinese Mabo Tofu Sauce to take back with them to Louisville.
And while they're just fine with the packaged sauce, especially with three kids and dinner to get on the table in a jiffy, I realized it's been a while since I've made Ma Po Tofu myself. While my old photos weren't bad, especially compared to many of my early pictures, it was taken with my Canon SD110. You know, the point-and-shoot with only an inch view screen.
I can do better. I've tweaked the recipe a little bit and added some step-by-step photos.
Original post below with a bit of history about the origins of the dish:
It's raining buckets here in SoCal today. Ordinarily that makes me want soup but I don't have any soup recipes in my queue, so about about something hot and spicy instead?
These are Sichuan/Szechuan/Szechwan peppercorns. Despite their name, they're not related to black peppercorns or chili peppers. However, they do create that ma la (numb hot) sensation characteristic of Sichuan cuisine.
The numbing comes in handy when eating the tons of chili peppers that are part of so many Sichuan dishes. They have a lemony flowery aroma, so you'll know if you're getting the real thing, or just lots of chili peppers instead. How numbing are they? Well, let's just say in the interests of giving first-hand testimony for my blog, I popped just one little Sichuan peppercorn hull (not even the peppercorn) in my mouth and chewed. My tongue and lips immediately felt like I got a shot of novocain.
According to Wikipedia, Sichuan peppercorns were banned from importation in the U.S. from 1968 to 2005 because they could potentially carry a citrus canker, a bacteria harmful to citrus crops. The ban was only loosely enforced until 2002. And for a while, Sichuan peppercorns were nearly impossible to find in stores or in restaurants. The ban was lifted in 2005. I recently bought a 4-oz bag of Sichuan peppercorns at the Asian grocery store for $1.99.
Ma po tofu (Chinese pockmarked old lady's tofu) is so named because of a legend about a leprous old lady who lived on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Chengdu. Her house was near a road and one night a poor farmer and his son sought shelter from a storm. So happy to have company (on account of her leprosy and all you know), she raided her meager pantry to prepare them a meal. Using just a few ounces of pork, tofu, and Sichuan peppercorns, she created a spicy, piquant, tofu dish. It was so tasty that others sought her out for the dish as well, and later named it after her.
Is this story true? There's similarities of pronunciation and form in the Chinese character for "leprous" and the character for "numb." But outside of that, I guess we'll never know.
Ma Po Doufu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu)
For about 4 servings as a side dish, you'll need:
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, or more if you can stand it
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 lb ground pork or beef
1 tblsp corn starch dissolved in 1 cup of chicken broth or water
A dozen chili peppers, or as many as you can handle
1 tblsp Chinese or Korean fermented soy bean paste or Chao/Doufu Ru (Vietnamese/Chinese Fermented Bean Curd)
1 tblsp Chinese Black Bean Sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp chili flakes
1 package soft tofu, cubed
Optional: For color, add 2 thinly sliced scallions, chopped cilantro, or diced jalapeno.
Dissolve 1 tblsp cornstarch in broth, or water, and set aside.
Mince 2 cloves garlic.
In a dry wok or saute pan on medium-high heat, lightly toast the Sichuan peppercorns to release the oils and fragrance. You can also grind the peppercorns if you wish a smoother texture. Set aside.
Then drizzle olive oil and add the minced garlic.
Saute the minced beef or pork until mostly cooked. Drain excess fat if you wish.
Add 1 tblsp black bean sauce, 1 tblsp fermented soy bean paste, 1 tsp soy sauce, and 1 tsp chili flakes.
Make sure to mash the sauce into the meat until thoroughly mixed.
Add the cornstarch broth and mix again.
Give it a few minutes for the cornstarch to thicken the sauce.
Meanwhile, slice tofu into 1-inch cubes. Start by halving it across the center.
Then cut into strips in the other direction.
And finally, cube the tofu across.
The sauce should have nicely thickened at this point.
Add the tofu cubes, dried chili peppers, and Sichuan peppercorns. If you wish, for a bit of color, I like to add minced cilantro and sliced scallions, but I ran out this time and used a diced jalapeno instead.
Mix thoroughly. That's it.
Actually, this old picture wasn't too bad. I've had much worse. But it was made with firm tofu, and these days, I prefer soft silken tofu.
But you have to admit, the updated picture is more appetizing.
Serve with rice.
Other tofu dishes:
Dau Hu Chien (Vietnamese Fried Tofu)
Dau Hu Chien Sot Ca Chua (Vietnamese Fried Tofu with Tomato Sauce)
Dubu Chorim (Korean Fried Tofu with Soy Sauce)
Soon Dubu Kimchee Chigae (Korean Soft Tofu Kimchee Soup)
Taiwanese Popcorn Tofu
Thit Heo Kho Dau Hu (Vietnamese Braised Pork with Tofu)
Yong Tau Foo (Chinese Stuffed Tofu)