I love the literal translation of this name – Pock-marked Mother Chen’s beancurd. It was named after the smallpox-scarred wife of a Qing Dynasty restauranteur who prepared it for labourers on the way to the city markets carrying their loads of oil. Just don’t ask me when exactly she lived between 1644 and 1911.
I got used to calling Tofu “Dou Fu” while I was in China where it was a regular feature on menus and I was fascinated by its ability to take on different textures and flavours.This particular dish is traditionally served in a bowl with a good layer of chilli oil on top rather than on a plate and is eaten with a spoon. You can cut back on the oil if the idea of all those extra calories is putting you off.
I had a vegetarian variation of Ma Po Tofu inside the kitchen of the China Sichuan recently where it included yellow bean paste and Gok Wan includes a version wrapped in omelette in Gok Cooks Chinese. But the recipe below is the traditional one taught in the Sichuan provincial cooking school and included by Fuchsia Dunlop in her Sichuan Cookery book and I decided to stick closely to that for my own first attempt at making it at home.
This dish is yet another example of where a little meat goes a long way in Chinese dishes. Ken Hom explained that very well in the third episode of BBC Two’s Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure where a small chicken is “stretched” as we would say in Ireland to feed a small vilage. If you have a population of over 1.3 billion to feed a small amount of animal protein per person has to be supplemented with other ingredients to make tasty and nutritious meals. This leads to a very different balance between meat and other ingredients than we tend to be used to here in Ireland and one that I came to find healthier and easier to digest.
While we might balk at some of the more exotic ingredients used as sources of protein in Chinese cooking, I found when I visited Shan’s family in Xinjiang Province that their biggest concern about coming to visit us in Ireland is being faced with indigestible (to them) plates of steak!
By the way if you are keen to learn more about cooking Sichuan food, Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery book is a must for your cook book library.
Ma Po Dou Fu
- 1 block of tofu (about 500g) – use good quality organic if possible
- 4 baby leeks or spring onions
- 100 ml groundnut oil
- 150 g minced beef
- 2 1/2 tbs of Sichuanese chilli bean paste
- 1 tbs fermented black beans
- 2 tsp ground Sichuanese chillies (only if you like it really hot)
- 250 ml chicken stock (vegetable stock would do)
- 1 tsp white sugar
- 2 tsps light soy sauce
- 3 tbs potato flour mixed with 4 tbs cold water
- 1/2 tsp ground roasted Sichuan pepper
- Prepare the ground Sichuan pepper by dry-frying Sichuan peppercorns in a hot wok, being careful not to burn them, and grind them in a pestle and mortar.
- Cut the tofu into 2 cm cubes and steep in very hot or gently simmering lightly salted boiling water.
- Slice the spring onions or leeks at a steep angle into thin “horse-ear” slices.
- Soak the fermented beans in a little hot water for a few minutes then squeeze out the water with your hand.
- Heat the oil in a wok until it is smoking (“season” the wok with oil first if it is a traditional iron one)
- Stir-fry the mince until crispy and brown but not yet dry.
- Turn the heat down to medium, add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry for about 30 seconds until the oil is a rich red colour
- Add the black beans and ground chillies (if using) and stir-fry for 20-30 seconds.
- Pour in the stock, stir well and add in the strained tofu.
- Mix gently with the back of your ladle so it doesn’t break up.
- Season with sugar, soy sauce and salt to taste and simmer for about 5 minutes so the tofu can absorb the flavours of the sauce.
- Add the leeks or spring onions and gently stir in.
- When they are just cooked add just enough of the potato flour mixture gradually until sauce has thickened enough to cling glossily to the meat and tofu.
- Pour into a bowl and scatter with the ground Sichuan pepper before serving.
My first attempt at cooking this didn’t look as pretty as I would have liked but it tasted delicious. Dry frying Sichuan peppers Shan had brought over from China last Christmas released aromas in the kitchen that plunged me right back into our favourite Sichuan restaurant in Beijing. I loved the way the tofu expanded while it was simmering and it held together surprisingly well when added to the sauce. Fermented black beans are rapidly becoming one of my favourite ingredients. I enjoy the distinctive flavour they add to dishes and the way they act as a foil for the spicier ingredients.
I didn’t have Sichuanese chilli powder so I threw in some dried chilli flakes. I liked the way adding the potato mixture gave the tofu and meat a lovely glossy finish. The ground Sichuan pepper was much milder in its impact than the whole peppercorns where even one tiny flake can numb the tongue and lips for several minutes. This I know because I was checking that I had opened the right package from the small stash of spices Shan had brought over to me with no English on their labels. This is one spice you won’t mistake for any other