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A quick search on the internet tells me that the words “mapo tofu” – the name of the classic Sichuan Chinese dish of cubed tofu, ground meat, fermented black beans, red chile paste, and Sichuan peppercorns – translates as “Pockmarked-Face Lady’s Tofu.” Which is gross – or at least weird – but shouldn’t ruin your enjoyment of a truly delicious meal. If you’re not familiar with Sichuan cooking, and especially with the weird numbing effects of Sichuan peppercorns, mapo tofu might come on a little strong at first, but the generous dose of heat combined with the literally mouthwatering tingling from the Sichuan pepper make it all kinds of exhilarating.
I won’t lie – this recipe is kind of involved. There are some specialty ingredients – Sichuan peppercorns, red chile bean paste, and fermented black beans – that you’ll probably need to go to an Asian supermarket to find, and since it’s a stir-fry, you’ll need to have all your chopping and measuring done ahead of time, as you have to cook everything really quickly over high heat. Plus, this recipe takes advantage of a really cool technique for using tofu to substitute for ground meat that involves 24 hours of freezing, so, you know, you’ll have to plan ahead. But for all that, it’s totally worth it, as mapo tofu is one of the most well-known dishes in Sichuan cooking, and this meatless version is pretty much indistinguishable from versions made with beef or pork.
Another (possible) caveat is that this recipe – as made below – is really spicy, though, as is typical of Sichuan cooking, the unique numbing effect of Sichuan pepper makes the heat from the chile paste and flakes much easier to take, and the cubed tofu helps absorb some of the heat. Still, this is right at the edge of how spicy I like things, so feel free to reduce the amount of chile paste or chile flakes (and then maybe serve with some chile oil or hot sauce at the table) if heat isn’t so much your thing. And however spicy you make yours, be sure to serve this with plenty of hot rice.
Mapo Tofu (Spicy Tofu with Sichuan Pepper)
- 32 ounces of firm tofu
- 1 teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns
- 3 Tablespoons of neutral (canola, vegetable, etc.) oil
- 2 teaspoons of fresh ginger, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon of dried red chile flakes
- 3 Tablespoons of red chile bean paste (I used Korean gochujang, since that's what was in my fridge, though Pixian toban jiang is probably ideal. You can also use chile-garlic sauce if that's what you have on hand)
- 1 Tablespoon of jarred fermented black beans
- 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 1 Tablespoon of soy sauce
- 1 1/3 cups of water
- 3 scallions, cut on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces
- 1 1/2 Tablespoons of cornstarch dissolved in 3 tablespoons water
- Put one of the packages of tofu in the freezer and freeze for at least 24 hours. Remove from the freezer and thaw. (If you want to speed the thawing process up some, you can put it the package in a bowl of warm water for an hour.) Open the package, drain the tofu, and, working over a colander to catch any bits that might fall off, press the block of tofu between your hands to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Rinse under cold running water, and squeeze again, repeating until the water coming out of the block is clear. Gather the tofu into a ball and squeeze out as much water as you can, then crumble until it looks like ground meat. Set aside.
- Open and drain the other package of tofu. Cut into 1/2-inch pieces, put into a bowl, and cover with boiling water. Let sit for 15 minutes (during which time you can get all your other prep done), and set aside.
- Put the Sichuan peppercorns in a skillet, turn the heat to medium, and toast, tossing frequently, until fragrant and slightly darkened, around 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat, and grind to a powder in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. (Or put the peppercorns in a plastic bag, and use the bottom of a small pan to grind them.) Set aside.
- Heat the oil in a wok or skillet over high heat. When hot, add the crumbled tofu to the pan and stir fry until slightly browned, around 1-2 minutes. (Some will stick to the bottom of the pan, most likely - don't worry too much about that, though try to scrape up what you can while stir-frying.) Add the ginger, chile flakes, red chile paste, and fermented black beans. Stir fry for 2 minutes. Add the sugar and soy sauce, stir to combine, then add the cubed tofu and toss to coat. Add the water and let the mixture cook for 3-4 minutes.
- Add the scallions and stir to combine. Stir up the cornstarch and water, then add to the pan. Stir in the ground Sichuan pepper, transfer to a serving bowl, and serve with steamed rice.
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