There is always great rejoicing in our house when a new cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop comes out. Her new book, "Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking" has found its way into my kitchen, as well as my son Hugh's. Hugh instantly tried this recipe for Ma Po Tofu (also colorfully known as Pock-Marked Old Woman's tofu) and pronounced it the best he's ever made. Recipes for this are ubiquitous, and Hugh and I have tried many, many versions of it, so this is high praise indeed.
 
So last weekend at a family gathering, I made this to take along for Hugh, as he is a vegetarian. Interestingly enough, he found it quite different from the dish he had made, even though we were using the same recipe. He still found it delicious, but his had a much thicker sauce, and more of it, than mine did. It's a small reminder to me that every cook does things a little differently, and a recipe can vary in taste and texture by even the smallest changes and substitutions, or even techniques of the cook. My husband and I both loved this, and I'll be making it again, probably adding a bit more stock to get that lovely sauce.
 
Just a word on the ingredients. I live in Toronto, which has one of the most diverse populations in the world, so these ingredients are in my local grocery store. You may have to go to an Asian market to find the Sichuan chili bean paste (I used a chili garlic bean paste) and the fermented black beans. Sichuan pepper corns are quite different from regular black peppercorns, and leave your mouth and lips with a bit of numbness for a few minutes. If you can't find them, just leave them out, rather than substituting any other kind of pepper.
 

Prep time: 20 minutes  

Total time: 20 minutes  

Yield: 3-4 servings

Ma Po Tofu

Ingredients

  • 1 - 1/4 pound plain white tofu
  • Dash salt
  • 4 baby leeks or spring onions, green parts only
  • 4 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons Sichuan chilli bean paste
  • 1 tablespoon fermented black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 2 teaspoons ground red chilllies (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
  • 1/2 cup vegetarian stock or water
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 2 teaspoons potato flour mixed with 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
Cooking directions
  1. Cut the tofu into 3/4 inch cubes and leave to steep in very hot, lightly salted water while you prepare the other ingredients (do not allow the water to boil or the tofu will become porous and less tender). Slice the baby leeks or spring onions at a steep angle.
  2. Heat a wok over a high flame. Pour in the cooking oil and swirl it around. Reduce the heat to medium, add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is a rich red color and smells delicious. Next add the black beans and ground chillies (if using) and stir-fry for a few seconds more until you can smell them too. Then do the same with the ginger and garlic. Take care not to overheat the seasonings; you want a thick, fragrant sauce and the secret of this is to let them sizzle gently, allowing the oil to coax out their flavors and aromas.
  3. Remove the tofu from the hot water with a perforated spoon, shaking off excess water, and lay it gently in the wok. Push the tofu tenderly with the back of your ladle or wok scoop to mix it into the sauce without breaking up the cubes. Add the stock or water, the white pepper and salt to taste and mix gently, again using the back of your scoop so you don't damage the tofu.
  4. Bring to a boil, then simmer for a few minutes to allow the tofu to absorb the flavours of the seasonings. Add the leek slices (if using) and nudge them into the sauce. When they are just tender, add a little of the flour-and-water mixture and stir gently as the liquid thickens. Repeat once or twice more, untilt he sauce clings to the seasonings and tofu (don't add more than you need). If you are using spring onions rather than leeks, add them now and nudge them gently into the sauce.
  5. Pour the tofu into a deep bowl. Sprinkle with the ground roasted Sichuan pepper and serve.

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