You see recipes for the classic fiery Sichuan dish Mapo Tofu, or Mapo Doufu (the name comes from a story of an unfortunately pocked-face (ma) woman (po) who supposedly had a roadside stand she sold it from) all over the internet. Recipe sites, blogs, online newspaper food columns...everywhere. It's like every day millions of people must be making it. It's been on my to cook list for a long time, so this past Tuesday night it was my time to join the hordes of Mapo mavens. Unfortunately, out of the seeming thousands of recipes out there, I picked what must have been the worst one. It was off of the Washington Post website (in case you want to see how not to make Mapo Tofu, click here). The woman who's recipe it was actually wrote a cookbook about stir frying across China. This would not be a ringing endorsement of her book. w, who has had it innumerable times and who's dad apparently makes a definitive version, came home from work halfway through, took one sniff, and asked what was I making. Not a good sign. She took one taste and said "Um, something's not right here." She was right, only it was several things that weren't right. This most flavorful of dishes, a paragon of Sichuan fire and spice, was turned into a bland mess. Scratch one effort.
Of course with me getting kicked to the curb by the Washington Post was unacceptable, so I was like "Fuck that, I'm doing it again!" So I did more research, found out how I thought it should be, went shopping for the right ingredients, grabbed that wok I insulted the night before, and went at it again last night. I combined takes on several versions (like I knew what the hell I was doing), and this time I got the "ooh, that looks better" from w when she walked in on the process. And you know, it turned out pretty good, although I chopped the ginger which I shouldn't have as it was a little raw (best to leave it in sticks so you can pull it out), but other than that this had bite, spice, and that grabbing-for-the-water-glass heat you look for. Is this the definitive version? No, probably not, and I still want to play with it some more. I am hoping when we go to w's parents place in Houston for the Chan Family Christmas that her dad might let me watch him make his. But for now, this erased Tuesday's culinary defeat. w even asked if there were leftovers, and that's about as good a compliment as you can get at our house when the Caucasian is in the kitchen doing Chinese! If anyone has any advice on improvements, I'd love to hear them.
*** *** ***
adapted from several..thank you all!
some of the mapo mise
1 block soft tofu, cut into 3/4" to 1" inch cubes
4 oz ground pork
3 Tbsp chili bean garlic paste
1 tsp (or more) Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and ground or crushed
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp rice wine
3 or 4 1" slices of ginger
4 green onions, sliced thinly, keeping white parts and green parts separate (reserve some of the green parts to garnish on top)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp brown sugar
4 Dried whole Thai chilis (more or less, depending on your heat tolerance)
1/4 C chicken stock
1 Tbsp oil
1 Tbsp cornstarch mixed with 2 Tbsp water
Salt to taste
In your wok or skillet, heat 1 Tbsp of vegetable oil over medium high heat. Add the ginger slices, white part of the green onion, and ground Sichuan peppercorns and cook until fragrant for 30 to 60 seconds (pic at left). Add the ground pork, the chili bean paste, garlic, soy sauce, rice wine, white pepper, and sugar, and cook for another minute or two. Then add the tofu, green part of the green onions, Thai chilis, chicken stock and simmer for about 15 minutes, stir occasionally and carefully so you don't break up the tofu. Meanwhile mix the cornstarch with some water in a small bowl and set aside. After simmering, add the cornstarch slurry and bring up to a simmer again and cook until thickened. Add salt to taste.
Garnish with chopped green onions and serve with white rice.
note: Here in Portland Sichuan peppercorns, a critical ingredient and not to be substituted for, were somewhat hard to find. I eventually found them at Whole Paycheck, who had just gotten them in. For those of you who, unlike me, are organized cooks and can plan ahead, there are several online sources.