One dish we enjoyed immensely (and often) in Taiwan was Mapo Tofu – soft tofu warmed in a super-spicy-salty sauce. Traditionally made with ground pork or beef, it was just as common to find this dish without meat and was/is very popular with vegetarians. The dish is pronounced maw-po-doe-fu in Mandarin
Originating from the city of Chengdu in the Sichuan (Szechuan) province of China, Mapo Tofu has an interesting history. Translated roughly to “pock-marked mother tofu”, mapo tofu was created by a woman with a terribly pock-marked face. She prepared her tofu fiery-hot, became infamous and her tofu recipe was so popular, customers lined-up to place orders. It is still one of the most popular and common dishes found in Szechuan restaurants world-wide.
Besides a pound of soft tofu, four little mise en place are required as the dish comes together quickly.
One item you may need to acquire at an Asian grocer, or a well-stocked supermarket, is a jar of Chili Bean Sauce. This spicy condiment is useful in any dish you would like to spice-up. Look for this paste as chili bean paste, doubanjiang or tobandjan. Ingredients include salted chili pepper, fermented soy bean paste, fermented broad bean paste, sugar, garlic and other spices.
Another possible unfamiliar ingredient used in Mapo Tofu? Fermented Black Beans. Fermented Black Beans (douchi in Chinese) are fermented and salted soy beans. Ingredients include soy beans, salt, ginger, orange peel and soy sauce. These suckers are S A L T Y. I always rinse them. Always. Twice. Truly, this ingredient is even rare for my international refrigerator. If you choose to omit it (why buy a 16 oz bag of fermented super-salty black beans when only two tablespoons are required in this recipe?), I will completely understand. But, since they were always included in the Mapo Tofu we enjoyed in Taipei, I picked up a bag at a Chinese grocer in Los Angeles. Transferred to a glass jar, the fermented beans will keep for at least a year in the fridge.
Or until I throw them out.
If you knock on my door. I will give you two tablespoons of each!
Douchi – fermented soy beans
Four green onions are required – white and green parts separated. Use soft or medium tofu – the floating-in-a-tub of water variety. (Do not use Japanese “silken style tofu” as it just too soft and could fall apart in this dish.) Rinse the tofu quickly under running water before cubing.
One pound soft or medium-firm tofu, cut into bite-sized cubes
3 Tablespoons peanut (or canola/vegetable) oil
1 Tablespoon freshly grated ginger
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (I always use more)
1/2 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns
4 green onions, white parts only, minced
2 Tablespoons chili bean paste
2 Tablespoons fermented black beans,
rinsed very well and coarsely chopped (optional)
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup dry sherry
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 Tablespoons soy sauce (I use low sodium)
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Bowl #4 – Garnish:
4 green onions, green parts only, sliced thin
Cubed tofu, quietly waiting in boiling water bath
Place the cubed tofu in a heat-safe bowl and carefully pour boiling water over until tofu is completely covered. Let the bean curd rest in the boiling water, uncovered, while the dish is prepared.
Heat a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Coat the bottom with oil, then add (Bowl #1) the ginger, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns and minced white parts of the onions. Let this mixture wilt and stir often until the garlic and onion begin to brown, about three minutes. Add the (Bowl #2) chili bean paste and chopped fermented beans (if using) into the green onion and garlic mixture. Stir well to coat and reduce temperature to medium. Drain the tofu and carefully slide the drained bean curd into the skillet/wok. Gently toss. Give the (Bowl #3) sauce a good stir (to redistribute the cornstarch) before pouring it over the tofu in the skillet. Carefully, stir to coat well. Bring to a boil, and let the sauce simmer until it thickens, one or two minutes. Garnish with the green ends of the onions and serve over rice.
NOTE: This version is not so very spicy. Kids could easily take it down. If you use the fermented black beans (seriously, don’t!) this dish will be ridiculously salty. Pump-up the spice by adding dried chili flakes or another tablespoon of chili paste.