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).