Sunday, 22 January 2012

Celebrate Chinese New Year with Ma Po Tofu (even modified)

January 2012

SmartCooks here.

Happy Chinese New Year.  

On Monday, January 23, 2012 (or year 4709), the Year of the Dragon will start, one of the 12 animals used in Chinese calendar (and the only mythological animal).  The dragon apparently epitomizes yang portion of one's personality i.e., warm/male energy.  

To celebrate Chinese New Year, I had a craving for a slightly spicy dish and came across one called Mapo Tofu and then did a little research on it, tried a few versions, and found a vegetarian option as well.  The dish originated in the Sichuan (Szechuan) province and is a 'simmered' dish, fast-making, and spicy.  It is a combination of tofu, spicy chili bean sauce, and minced meat, either beef or pork.  The authentic version of it are supposed to have both 'heat' spiciness and 'mala' or numbing spiciness.  It is also described as spicy hot.  

History of Ma Po Tofu

The history of the dish has kindof a strange legend and I read a few different versions of both its origins and name.  

Ma Po Tofu is named after a woman -- Wen Qiaoqiao -- who lived during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).  After losing her husband in an accident, the woman and her sister in-law, both of whom were poor, developed a dish based on tofu and beef or pork (there's a subtext involved about rivalry with a local beef store).  The new dish was so delicious that they their house into a small restaurant and built a good business around their signature dish.  When Qiaoqiao died, the dished as named ma po tofu (pock-marked grandmother) to remember her. The name stuck and is famous in Sichuan cuisine.  It's hot and spicy and delicious.

What You Need to Prepare the Dish

Needless to say there are various versions of the recipe around.  I found one with many substitutes and then found a vegetarian version using tempeh that works as well.

So, first of all, what's involved in the real dish. Some ingredients are best found in Asian supermarkets, such as fermented black beans, or douchi, which is preferred, or a black bean sauce (as shown left) 

a spicy chili-bean broad bean paste (salty bean paste, on right), known as doubanjiang, 

and Sichuan pepper  which has a unique lemony flavour.   
The first time I made it I made it as chicken and tofu, and substituted the black beans for hoisin sauce (it was still delicious) and used a Japanese pepper instead of Sichuan pepper.  

The second time I prepared it I used pork and tofu and made a trip to the NEW, super large Asian Supercentre, in Orleans in a small strip mall on 10th Line Road featuring Goodlife and other businesses.  Its merchandise is set out in various aisles e.g., Japan, China, India etc.  It will eventually feature South Asian, Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern, African/Latino and European products and food i.e., a wider scope than T&T.  

Unfortunately, the trip was mostly an exercise in frustration as there are dozens of brands of black bean paste and sauce and most labels are not translated into English.  The fellows stocking the shelves were no help, for example, two had never heard of Sichuan pepper at which point a customer intervened and pointed me in the right direction and told me not to listen to him.  But I persevered looking for ingredients and the resulting dish was glad I did.  

Vegetarian versions either:  a) leave out the meat and keep the tofu and sauce; b) use vegetarian 'meat' or tempeh; or c) substitute another vegetable such as cauliflower or tomato for the  meat (e.g., Mark Bittman in The Food That Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living).  (Thank you again HD!) 

For all versions, it cooks quickly so be sure to have all ingredients at hand, including the rice, brown rice, brown rice noodles etc ready! 

Ma Po Tofu (with pork or beef) 
3-4 people 


350 grams of firm tofu, cut in 1-inch cubes
6 cups water 
1 T salt
2 T peanut oil
150 grams lean pork or beef, ground
2 T fermented black bean (Asian supermarkets)
3 T fermented chili bean paste (Asian supermarkets)
1 tsp red chill powder
1 T dark soy sauce (I use low-sodium)
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock 
1 tsp ginger, minced
1 or 2 scallions, green part chopped 
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorn, ground (Asian supermarkets) 

Thickening ingredients: 
1 T potato starch (or corn starch) 
1 T cold water 

Serving Suggestions:  brown rice, brown rice noodles.  


Bring 6 cups of water with 1 T of salt to boil.  Parboil the tofu cubes for 3 minutes, then drain. 

Heat oil in the wii.  Add minced pork (or beef) and stir-fry until loose  Stir in fermented black ben, fermented chill bean paste, chill powder, dark soy sauce and chicken (or vegetable) stock.  Add tofu and stir gently to keep tofu from breaking.  Simmer for 5 minutes.

Combine ingredients for thickening mixture and add to the wok.  After 1 minute, remove from heat and dust with Sichuan peppercorn and garnish with chopped scallion.  

If desired, serve with rice.  

Ma Po Tofu (Vegetarian) 
3-4 people 

Canola or peanut oil
125g (4oz) of tempeh
2 T finely chopped garlic
2 T finely grated ginger
1 tsp fermented black beans, rinsed
½ tsp (or more) sambal olek\
Greens from 1 large bunch of spring onions, sliced
¾ cup water
1 heaping tsp shiro (white) miso
500g (1 lb) silken tofu, sliced into 1 cm (½ in) cubes
1-2 tsp brown sugar
 2-3 T soy sauce


Pour 1 tablespoon of oil in a heavy-based frying pan and set it over a medium-high heat. Crumble tempeh and add to hot oil.  Stir frequently, scraping up any bits that stick to the pan, for 10 minutes. All should be crisp and a deep shade of golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper/a clean tea towel and set aside.

Add another tablespoon of oil to the same frying pan, turning the heat down to medium-low. Add the garlic, ginger, fermented black beans and sambal olek. Fry with care for 30 seconds. Don’t let that garlic burn. Toss in the spring onion greens, stir, then add the water, miso and tofu. Cook gently for a few minutes, until the tofu is just cooked. 

Add the tempeh to the pan, followed by the sugar and soy sauce, to taste. Serve over brown rice or noodles.  

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