With the exception of the most amazing Peking Duck I’ve ever eaten, I was disappointed to discover that Chinese food in China is a rather dull affair. Roasted locust and the occasional snake-on-a-stick not withstanding, bland soups and mediocore dumplings seem to be the order of the day on the streets of Beijing.
After spending the best part of a week eating possibly the dullest Asian food on earth, we chanced upon a massive subterranean food-court that specialized in regional food from all over China. It was here, in this overcrowded and windowless basement, that we finally discovered some of that allusive “Chinese flavour” in China – we had found Sichuanese food or more specifically, mapo tofu! Little did I know that I stumbled upon what would possible become one of my favourite Chinese dishes of all time.
Loosely translating to “grandmother’s pockmarked tofu”, this colorfully named dish has all the hallmarks of a true Sichuanese classic. Spicy, stastifiying and, above all, “numbing”, mapo tofu has got it all! Packed full of flavour, it is a great dish to introduce the uninitiated to the unsung delights of tofu. The soft, silky texture of the tofu plays beautifully against the fiery sauce, resulting in a “cooling” contrast to the intensity of the dish.
Easy to make and always tasty, mapo tofu is the epitome of Chinese home-style cooking and makes for fantastic meal on its own with just some rice. Equally, though, mapo tofu makes a great addition to a larger Chinese banquet as it can be made ahead of time and then gently reheated before serving (something of a rarity in Chinese cooking).
Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐: Serves 4
- 1 tbsp. Sichuan peppercorns
- 3 tbsp. sea salt
- 300g silken tofu
- 2 tbsp. oil (peanut or vegetable)
- 250g minced fatty pork (or substitute with ground beef)
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 tbsp. ginger, minced
- 1 spring onion (white part), minced
- 2 tbsp. chilli bean paste
- 1/2 tbsp. Shaoxing rice wine (or dry sherry)
- 1 tsp. light soya sauce
- 1/2 tsp. dark soya sauce
- 1 tsp. white sugar
- 150ml water or chicken stock
- 1/2 tsp. sesame oil
- 1 spring onion (green part), thinly sliced for garnish
- In a frying pan dry-roast the Sichuan peppercorns until fragrant. Grind the toasted peppercorns with sea salt until you have a fine powder. Store the Sichuan salt & pepper mix in a dry jar
- Drain the tofu and cut into 2cm cubes
- Heat the oil in a wok until smoking
- Briefly fry the minced garlic, ginger and spring onion until fragrant (about 30 seconds). Be careful not to burn the garlic
- Add the pork/beef and fry until browned
- Add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry for 30 seconds
- Deglaze the wok with the Shaoxing wine, followed by the light and dark soya sauces. Add the sugar. Stir-fry for another minute before adding the water or stock
- Bring to the boil, reduce heat and then cover. Simmer for 20 – 25 minutes
- Gently add the cubed tofu. Cover and continue simmering for another 10 minutes
- If the sauce is too runny add a slurry of cornflower mixed with water to thicken the sauce
- Just before serving, top with sesame oil, sprinkle over a pinch of the the Sichuan salt & pepper mix and the thinly sliced spring onion greens