Vegetarian Ma-po Tofu — sensational with a big buzz

Chinese Mapo Tofu

It’s impossible to talk about Chinese tofu recipes without mentioning the all time hit and the sensational dish with a big buzz — Ma-po tofu. Rich, appetizing, spicy but not too hot. It can be prepared as a vegetarian dish, or cooked with beef or pork mince. However you like it, it is the combination of tofu, bean paste and and Sichuan pepper that gives the dish its distinctive and rich flavor.

One of the key ingredients is Sichuan pepper. What does it taste like, if you can call that a taste? I couldn’t have described it better than this Wikipedia entry, “they produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue).” You get the idea, although I think it’s more like a 110 volt shock if you bite into a fresh Sichuan peppercorn! So why would Chinese want to use such a thing for cooking? Because of the addictive flavor and sensation it brings to a dish that nothing else could. There is no substitute.

loose Sichuan Pepper on a chopping board

Another key ingredients is Pi-Xian (meaning Pi county) bean paste which can be found in many Chinese stores overseas. I usually keep away from commercially prepared cooking sauces but this one is an exception and truly deserves a place in the pantry of anyone who wants to do more Chinese cooking. It is made from broad beans and fresh chili through a long and complicated fermenting process. The Pi county in Sichuan province, owning to its climate and water quality, is renowned for producing the best quality bean paste. Most store owners will be able to help you to find it if you tell them you are making Ma-po tofu. Make sure it is made of broad bean instead of soy bean.

If you are unsure about the idea of navigating through the aisle of a Chinese store looking for something you can hardly pronounce, then one good alternative is the Lee Kum Kee chili bean sauce, which can be often found in your local supermarket, usually around where you will find soy sauce. The purists will probably insist on getting the Pi-xian paste, the Bordeaux of all broad bean pastes, but I think this is a great alternative. There are also a couple of Ma-po tofu recipes on the Lee Kum Kee website you might want to try, but I’ve noticed they don’t use Sichuan pepper. To the eyes of a native Chinese, Sichuan pepper to Ma-po tofu is like almond to marzipan. Having said that, the recipes still look delicious to me no matter how I think the dishes should be named. I often cook a similar tofu dish without Sichuan pepper. Check it out — Simple Home Style Braised Tofu .

Sichuan pepper in oil and ma-po tofu on a plate

While most of the time we cook with a hot wok on high heat, this dish starts by flavoring the oil with various ingredients on medium heat before adding tofu. The sauteed chili sauce is much less hot and the pepper less numbing, and you have a dish with more balanced flavors. Make sure the oil stays below its smoking point and is not too hot to prevent burning the pepper and the garlic. You might also need to add a one or two tablespoons of water during cooking if the tofu is a firmer variety containing less water.

Preparation: 5 minutes       Cooking 7 minutes

  • 400g tofu cut into 3cm cubes
  • 1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorn*
  • 1 tbsp Pi-Xian bean paste or Lee Kum Kee chili bean sauce
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped

 

  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1 spring onion, chopped
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce

 

Heat the oil on medium heat, put in Sichuan peppercorn and pushing around the wok to flavor the oil. Make sure the oil is well below smoking point. Discard the peppercorn when the oil is fragrant. Add garlic, half of the spring onion and broad bean paste, gently stir fry on medium heat for 15 seconds.

Turn the heat to high, add tofu and soy sauce, stir-fry for 30 seconds. Cover the wok, gently cooking for 4 minutes on medium heat; stir occasionally, add 1 or 2 tbsp of water if necessary. Turn off the heat, add the remaining spring onion. Serve.

* You can also use finely ground Sichuan pepper. Follow the above method, except adding 1/2 to 1 tsp of ground pepper at the very end with the remaining spring onion after the heat is turned off. This gives the dish an even stronger flavor for those who love the electrifying sensation of Sichuan Pepper!

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