Ma po tofu is an old Chinese classic, originating from Szechuan cuisine, and is basically a spicy tofu and ground pork dish. It’s typically spooned over steamed rice and is great on a cold winter day. The flavor palette is spicy, garlicky, and meaty, with the textural contrast of the almost crispy pork against the smooth tofu, along with the fresh crunch of the green onion. The version I describe here is similar to what my mother used to cook, which uses silken tofu and is not as spicy as most Szechuan cuisine tends to be.
Fresh tofu comes in varying firmness grades from silken/soft to firm, based on how much it has been pressed and drained. Silken tofu is like a soft custard and barely holds its shape, and so must be handled carefully to avoid pulverizing it. Now traditionally, ma po tofu is flavored with a Szechuan-style chili bean paste and fermented black beans, but here I’ve substituted Chiu Chow chili oil, which is a chili sauce made from preserved chili and fermented soybeans and is from a different region of China. I happen to like it and have it around. It’s available at most Asian food marts (I use the Lee Kum Kee brand), but in a pinch, just use crushed red pepper and sesame oil.
Optional extras include a tablespoon of minced ginger, a tablespoon of rinsed and minced fermented (salted) black beans, and 1/4 cup of chopped Chinese preserved vegetable (zha cai, cha tsai, pickled mustard plant stem – comes in a can). I would not include all of these – I feel the dish gets too complicated. If you don’t eat pork, ground beef is an acceptable substitute. If you’re vegetarian, swap the ground pork for 3/4 cup green peas and/or the aforementioned preserved vegetable. I’d recommend including the fermented black beans as well to give it a bit more earthy flavor in lieu of the meat. Oh, and swap the chicken broth for vegetable broth.
Links to sauces that might be hard to find:
Lee Kum Kee Chiu Chow Chili Oil
Kimlan San Chau (Light) Soy Sauce
Kimlan Lou Chau (Dark) Soy Sauce
Kadoya Sesame Oil
Ma Po Tofu
Developed by The RoboGourmet – v. 1.0, 12/7/2011
Adapted from http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Ma-Po-Tofu-103565
Serves 3 to 4
Notes: I prefer silken tofu because that’s what I’m used to, but this means that you have to take some care in handling so you don’t pulverize it too much. Simmering the tofu helps firm it up a bit. Firmer tofus are perfectly fine as well. The two major soy sauces in Chinese cooking are San Chau (light) and Lou Chou (dark). Light soy sauce is lighter in color and is saltier, typically used for seasoning. Dark soy sauce is made from light soy sauce and is further aged and/or has caramel/molasses added to enhance the color and flavor. Dark soy sauce is typically used to finish dishes and served on the table. I typically use Kimlan San Chau and Kimlan Lou Chau. If you only have one soy sauce, that’s OK. For the Chiu Chow chili oil, I use Lee Kum Kee brand. If you don’t have it, definitely include the optional red pepper flakes and add 1-1/2 teaspoons sesame oil. Serve with steamed rice.
1/2 pound ground pork
1 tablespoon light soy sauce (see notes)
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 cup low sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon Chiu Chow chili oil (mostly the solids) (see notes)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional for more heat)
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce (see notes)
1 pound silken tofu, drained and cut into approx. 3/4″ cubes (see notes)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and finely minced (optional)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in about 2 tablespoons water
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onion
Marinate the pork: Mix the light soy sauce and cornstarch in a small bowl until smooth. Work the sauce mixture into the ground pork and set aside.
Other Prep: Put about a quart of water in a saucepan. Cover and heat over medium-high heat until it simmers. In the meantime, mix together in a small bowl the chicken broth, Chiu Chow chili oil, and dark soy sauce for the main sauce and set aside. Mince the garlic, slice the green onion, and cut the tofu.
Cooking: When the water in the saucepan simmers, gently slide in the tofu and continue to simmer (barely) while you prepare the rest of the dish. Add vegetable oil to a wok, saucier, or a skillet over medium-high to high heat (depending on the weight/responsiveness of your pan – lower for heavier pans). When the oil barely starts to smoke, add the pork and cook, breaking it up with a wooden spatula into crumbles. Cook until the pork is no longer pink. Add the garlic and ginger and stir occasionally until fragrant, about one minute. Stir in the sauce mixture and bring to a simmer – if not using a nonstick pan, use a wooden spatula to scrape up the fond into the sauce. Gently drain the tofu in a large fine mesh strainer and then slide it into the pork/sauce mixture. Stir gently to combine and return to a simmer. Carefully mix in the cornstarch-and-water mixture and simmer for 30 seconds. Turn off the heat and gently stir in half the green onion. Transfer to a dish and top with the remaining green onion.