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Ma-po tofu

Ma-po tofuI write this with two of my friends in mind – Francis, whose tofu disintegrates, and Simon, who, on hearing that I was making something with beancurd in, said: “Ewww! Tofu!” – the sod.

Now, unlike Simon, I’m lucky enough to have spent a childhood being exposed not to the vegetarian tofu-masquerading-as-meat school of cooking, but the Chinese sort, where tofu is a delicious addendum to meat. In this dish (whose name means ‘pock-marked old woman’s tofu’, just to put Simon off even further) the tofu isn’t treated as a blank sponge of protein to absorb flavour – instead, its own flavour, actually rather subtle, delicate and somehow cooling, is a contrast to an amazingly savoury, chilli-hot surrounding of soy, chillies and pork. Totally delicious, and it’s very easy to make – just make sure that all your ingredients are chopped and ready in bowls before you start to stir-fry, because you’ll have to move fast once you begin cooking.

To serve six, you’ll need:

500g pork mince
3 tablespoons dark soya sauce
3 teaspoons cornflour
1 teaspoon sugar
50ml Chinese wine
700g firm silken-style tofu (Blue Dragon is good, and it’s easy to find in UK supermarkets)
5 cloves garlic
1 piece ginger, about the length of your thumb
6 dried shitake mushrooms without stems
400ml water
3 red bird’s eye chillies (I like this hot – cut down on the chillies if you don’t)
2 tablespoons chilli bean paste
12 spring onions (scallions)
1 tablespoon sesame oil

In a large bowl, mix the pork (I like quite a fatty mince here) with one teaspoon of the cornflour, the dark soy, sugar and Chinese wine. Set aside for a couple of hours in the fridge.

While the pork is marinading, soak the mushrooms in the boiling water. Chop the tofu into cubes about 2cm on each side and set aside in a bowl. Chop the garlic and ginger into tiny dice, slice the chillies finely, and put them all in another bowl. Chop the spring onions into small pieces and put the pieces from the lower, creamy and pale green half of the stem in the bowl with the garlic, ginger and chillies, and the pieces from the top, dark green half of the stem in a third bowl. When the mushrooms have soaked for half an hour, chop them into dice about the same size as the spring onion pieces, reserving the soaking liquid, and put the chopped mushrooms in the bowl with the garlic, ginger, chillies and the bottom half of the spring onions.

When you’re ready to start cooking, heat a wok with a couple of tablespoons of flavourless oil in the bottom until it starts to smoke. Throw the pork and its marinade in, and stir-fry until the pork has browned and starts to look a little crusty. Add the contents of the ginger and garlic bowl, stir-fry for about twenty seconds, and add the chilli bean sauce. Keep stir-frying until everything is mixed well, and add the tofu with the soaking liquid from the mushrooms. Stir very gently to make sure everything is combined.

Turn the heat down low and bring everything to a simmer – the tofu should be distributed evenly through the mixture. Don’t stir (this instruction is especially for you, Francis), or the tofu will break up – as it is, you’ll notice it breaks up a little, but the vast majority should stay in firm cubes. Allow the mixture to simmer for ten minutes, then add the remaining cornflour mixed with a little cold water (the water must be cold, or you’ll get lumps), stir very gently and simmer until thickened. Throw in the green tops of the spring onions, sprinkle over the sesame oil, and transfer to a bowl to serve.

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6 comments to Ma-po tofu

  • It’s strange how people seem so resistant to tofu, but like you, I grew up with the proper stuff. Ma Po Tofu changed my boyfriend’s mind.

    It’s funny how recipes vary so much; mine also uses fermented black beans, Sichuan pepper and beef. I was told beef was traditional but it changed to pork as it got easier to get hold of, but I must try it with pork one day.

  • Liz

    Hi Lizzie! My understanding is that the further south you get, the more likely your ma-po tofu is to contain beef – there’s a sort of beef/pork continuum going on from north to south. Of course, there’s nothing to stop those of you cooking this recipe to substitute the pork for beef – either would be darned tasty.

  • The good country tofu in Korea tastes so different than the bland jelly-like substance I grew up with in America. Just by itself it tastes like a light custard with a firm meaty texture. It actually has a pleasant aroma too.

  • Hello, just found your blog via Simmer ’til Done, lovely stuff. And you’re in Cambridge as well. Did you get the tofu on Mill Road?

  • Liz

    Hello ZK – couldn’t agree more. I’ve had tofu in Malaysia that was worlds apart from most of the pasteurised stuff you find in supermarkets – that said, the Blue Dragon stuff’s not half bad. UK and US readers should hotfoot it to their nearest Chinatown; some large suppliers will carry freshly made tofu in their chiller cabinets, and it’s usually pretty good.

    Hi Alex! Not this time, actually; I had run out of an awful lot of Chinese and Malaysian stuff all at once, so I put in an order at Wai Yee Hong in Bristol, who ship throughout the country (and who shipped considerably more stuff than I can comfortably carry to the car from Mill Road to me). I should write a new post about suppliers I’ve discovered online since the one I wrote a couple of years back – watch this space!

  • [...] more unappetisingly named Szechuan dishes out there: husband and wife offal, strange-taste pork, pock-marked old woman’s bean curd. Struggle past the names – they all taste great. Szechuan cuisine lays all its emphasis on [...]

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