Legend has it that there was an old lady (婆, pó) in Chengdu who was once afflicted with some kind of disease such as leprosy or smallpox, and thus disfigured with pockmarks (麻子, mázi). She lived on the outskirts of the city, and because she was a good cook, workers on their way home would stop by and bring her their tofu (豆腐, dòufu) to prepare for their dinner. After she became famous for her cooking skills, people from far away began to seek her out, asking for “the pockmarked old lady’s tofu,” or mapo doufu.
You’ll find this dish in restaurants and home kitchens throughout China and across the Chinese diaspora worldwide. It’s a perfect warming food for cold winter days. In fact, I woke up this morning wanting to grill, but the weather was just too cold to put up with all that outdoor activity. So instead it’s mapo doufu tonight.
Start by chopping some aromatics into small pieces, about the same size as the bits of ground pork. You can use shallots (which I used partly because they add a great flavor, and partly because I had some left over from making eggplant curry this last weekend):
You’ll also be using some garlic and a fresh green chile. Chop everything to about the same size. Fermented black beans (豆豉, dòuchī) will add depth of flavor and a bit of salt.
You’ll also need Sichuan peppers. The husks of these peppers have a light citrus fragrance and a lemony taste, however they best known for imparting and numbing sensation to the mouth. While this is pleasant in and of itself, it also adds even more character to spicy dishes.
Start the process by stir-frying ground pork and the aromatics in your wok.
Notice how the color deepens when you add spicy bean paste (辣豆瓣酱, là dòubàn jiàng):
At this point, all that’s really left is to add chicken stock and the tofu, heat everything up, stir gently, and then you’re done. Serve with rice and a few contrasting dishes (or as a main course).
INGREDIENTS and PREP:
- Wrap 2 blocks firm tofu (about 28 oz) in a clean towel and press under a heavy weight to drain. Let the tofu sit under the weight for about 20 minutes, or while completing the rest of the prep. When the excess water has been expressed, slice the tofu into cubes between 1″ and 1/2″ on the side
- 2/3 cup ground pork
- 1 large shallot, 3 cloves garlic, 1 fresh green chile (such as Serrano); all minced finely
- 2 Tbsp spicy bean paste (辣豆瓣酱, là dòubàn jiàng); 1 Tbsp fermented black beans (豆豉, dòuchī) coarsely chopped; 1 Tbsp dried Sichuan peppers (husks only)
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 Tbsp potato flour mixed well in 1 Tbsp chicken stock and 1 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1/2 cup scallions, sliced very thinly
- Heat your wok until barely smoking. Then add 1 Tbsp peanut oil and swirl it around. Add the pork (#2) and stir-fry until the pink disappears, about 1 minute.
- Add the aromatics (shallot, garlic, and chile, #3) and stir-fry for an additional 30 seconds.
- Next, reduce the heat a bit and add the bean paste, fermented black beans, and Sichuan peppers (#4); stir-fry for about a minute.
- Pour in the chicken stock (#5) and bring to a simmer. Then carefully add the tofu cubes (#1). Stir by gently lifting, so that the tofu doesn’t break apart.
- When the mixture has returned to a simmer, add the flour, extra stock, and soy sauce (#6), and stir gently.
- Turn off the heat. Just before serving, fold in the chopped scallions.
VARIATIONS: This is another one of those dishes that has as many variations as there are cooks. Outside of southwestern China, the Sichuan peppers will be under-emphasized or even omitted. Dried red chiles can take the place of the fresh green pepper. You can also make a perfectly acceptable vegan version by omitting the pork.