Mapo tofu stirs up a lot of memories for me… Many years ago, I spent the best part of a month in China. It had only recently opened its borders to independent travellers, and hadn’t quite worked out what to do with them. This resulted in a mind-bending mixture of bewildering petty controls and anarchic freedom.
Prevented from disembarking with the other passengers on a long-distance bus journey because a particular town was off limits, we were left free to wander off along the Great Wall with a sack full of bedding and sleep overnight in a watch tower.
With a few memorable exceptions, food was a definite low point of that trip. Often, there didn’t seem to be much food about, and what we found was of variable quality. Broken rice with grit and chaff, limp plants that looked like they’d been yanked from the side of the road, leaden grey dumplings in tepid, greasy broth.
As we didn’t speak Mandarin (and no one spoke English), we’d wander round peering at other peoples’ plates. When we saw something passable, we’d point to it. This was how I discovered mapo tofu– and once found, it was pretty much all I ate. Sometimes it came with meat, sometimes without (preferable). It might be be tongue-blisteringly hot at one place, mild and sweet at the next. However it came, I was happy to see it.
I add ground pork when I cook mapo tofu at home. But tofu is definitely the star of the dish, the meat acting as more of a garnish. The last batch I made was too spicy for the girls, when the new brand of chilli bean paste I’d bought turned out to be much hotter than expected. Lesson learned – I should have tested its strength before adding it to the dish.
- 1 tsp Szechuan pepper
- 500g tofu
- 2 Tb sunflower oil
- 200g ground pork
- 2 spring onions, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp ginger, grated
- 1 Tb Chinese rice wine
- 2 Tb chilli bean paste
- 1 cup (250 ml) stock or water
- 1 tsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 tsp cornstarch
- Dry fry the Szechuan pepper in a wok over a low heat for one to two minutes until fragrant. Crush lightly in a mortar and pestle.
- Cut the tofu into large cubes and place in a bowl. Pour over enough boiling water to cover, steep for five minutes, drain and set aside.
- Heat the oil in a wok over high heat. Add the oil and pork mince and stir fry for a couple of minutes, until browned. Add the spring onion, garlic and ginger and fry for thirty seconds.
- Add the rice wine, then the chilli bean paste and cook for two minutes.
- Add the stock or water, bring to the boil then add the soy sauce and sugar. Gently add the tofu to the mixture to avoid breaking it up. Reduce the heat and simmer for five or six minutes until the sauce has reduced.
- Combine the cornstarch with a tablespoon of water then mix into the sauce. Cook for a couple of minutes until thickened.
- Sprinkle with Szechuan pepper and additional spring onions, and serve with steamed rice.