Friday, February 22, 2008

Mapo Tofu

Ma Po Tofu

This picture is making me salivate as I write this at 1 in the morning. I can still remember how the sauce lingered on my lips, making them feel all warm and tingly. Authentic Sichuan cuisine is not for the faint of heart. The food from the province is damn spicy -- face reddening, sweat inducing, fan-yourself-silly spicy. And not only is it spicy, it numbs your mouth too! The famous ma la, or numb and spicy, sensation comes from the copious use of chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. Mapo tofu is one of the best known dishes from the province and has a colorful, slightly controversial, history behind it. The problem with this dish is that its true flavors are drastically muted in many restaurants. Sometimes it looks deceptively red but is not spicy at all! I suspect ketchup... Bah! Ketchup shouldn't be anywhere near this dish. And most of the time, it's missing that critical numbing effect. Up until 2005 the Sichuan peppercorn was banned from the States so not only was it incredibly hard to get the peppercorns *ahem legally* but many chefs chose to leave them out fearing the ma la would be too foreign. Luckily it's getting easier to find restaurants serving authentic Sichuan food but with the right ingredients, this dish is really easy to make at home.

The key ingredients are:
Chili bean paste (Dou Ban Jiang)
- This is the most important ingredient. It's a spicy sauce made from chilies and fermented beans. Broad bean chili paste is best but soybean chili paste is okay too. The brand I use is Lee Kum Kee.
Sichuan peppercorns

Optional ingredients:
Fermented black beans
- You can supplement the dish with some additional fermented black beans but it's okay if you can't find them.
Dried chilies
For even more heat if your chili bean paste isn't spicy enough

Mapo Tofu/ Mapo Doufu
1 block soft but not silken tofu, cut into 1 inch cubes
4 oz ground beef (85% or 90% lean) or pork
3 Tbsp chili bean paste
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and ground or crushed (more or less depending on your tastes)
Dried whole chilis (optional, how much is up to you)
1 Tbsp fermented black beans (optional), rinsed
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp rice wine
3 slices of ginger
4 green onions, sliced in half lengthwise then cut into 3 inch sections separating the white part from the green part (you add them at different times, reserve some of the green parts to garnish on top)
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp brown sugar
1/4 C chicken stock
1 Tbsp oil
1 Tbsp cornstarch mixed with 2 Tbsp water
Salt to taste

If you are using ground beef, brown it first, then drain it of the rendered fat because otherwise the dish will be a little too greasy. Heat 2 tsp of vegetable oil in a wok or skillet over medium high heat. Add the ground beef and cook until the beef is browned and the fat has rendered. Transfer the beef to a sieve to drain the fat and set aside. If you're using ground pork, no need to brown it first.

In the now cleared 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 about 30 seconds to a minute. Add the ground beef that you cooked earlier (or the raw ground pork if you're using that), the chili bean paste, garlic, fermented black beans (if using), 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, chicken stock and simmer for about 15 minutes, stir occasionally and carefully so you don't break up the delicate 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.

Garnish with chopped green onions and serve with white rice.

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