Mapo Tofu originated from the Sichuan province and has a fairly good origin story: the Village Voice identifies the creator as an old woman with a pock-marked face (from smallpox). Perhaps people decided it would be kinder to call her ‘Grandma’ as the other name for this dish is ‘Grandma’s Tofu’.
The original version is apparently full of chili oil, red chili flakes, and Szechuan peppercorns. My mom made a Cantonese version, or a home-style version, which was entirely devoid of chili! It was just tofu, pork and peas. So, versions closer to the original were a revelation, though I’ve had versions a little sweet (which I don’t like) and where the sauce seems thick and red and somewhat artificial (perhaps too much corn starch and not enough spice).
I’m not sure where I found this version. I honestly can’t find the source now. It’s a good recipe to start with… and then you can do variations, or explore some of the more exotic spices and complicated versions that are on the internet.
Before we start though, I consider the two most important parts of this recipe the tofu and the chili bean sauce. The tofu shouldn’t be the softest variety… because it will fall apart during cooking. There’s also very firm tofu, which to me, doesn’t have a nice texture, and other kinds of tofu that is already fried or cooked. The tofu that they sometimes sell in Western healthfood stores, beyond firm and not particularly white and creamy looking is… not Asian, I think. So, a ‘regular’ or ‘medium firm’ tofu should be OK. A package with a bunch of blocks of tofu in water should do you just fine. Here’s another handy hint: if you have leftover tofu, and keep it in the fridge, you should store it in water, but change the water every day… I don’t know but it goes nasty otherwise.
So here we go:
Easy Mapo Tofu (take about 15 minutes prep, 20 minutes to cook and probably feeds around four people with rice).
*Mix sauce and rest: 1/4 cup of hot water with a teaspoon or more of stock powder; 2 tablespoons of chili bean paste and 2 tablespoons of soy sauce
*Simmer 450 grams of tofu, cut into cubes, with a handful of frozen peas and 1/2 teaspoon of salt for at least 5 minutes.
*Stir-fry 225g pork with 1.5 tablespoons of oil until brown. Now, if you’re a vegetarian, which is a very good thing, you could use diced carrots, celery, green beans and mushrooms (any or in combination); if you don’t eat pork, I’m sure you can use ground beef, lamb or chicken. Add 1 big tablespoon of ginger and 1 big tablespoon of garlic (I find that peeling the garlic, and chopping the skin off the ginger, and then putting them into a hand-held food processor is a wonderfully easy way to get them to the right size with minimal effort). Cook another two minutes.
*Add sauce and bring to a boil. Then add 1.5 teaspoons of cornstarch dissolved in 1.5 tablespoons of warm water. Bring to a boil again. Drain the tofu and peas and fold into your sauce.
*Turn off the heat and add sliced green onions (or chives if you prefer), 1.5 teaspoons of sesame oil, and if you can find it (I love this) 1 teaspoon of sancho, Japanese spicy pepper.
Serve with white rice. Yum!
It may very well be that your Mapo Tofu is better than mine. Please leave your hints and advice, and recipe variations, in the comments!