Hey there heat eaters! Today we’re making one of my favourite chinese dishes, Mapo Tofu.
Before we jump right into the recipe, however, I’d like to give you the opportunity to read up on the backstory to this dish and pick which of my three versions you’d prefer from my overview here.
This particular version is my “basic” one. A nice, medium heat and only minimally adapted from the recipes you might find were you to turn on a cooking show in China’s Szechuan province.
Here’s what you’ll need:
6 cloves of garlic
an equivalent volume of ginger
1 tablespoon of szechuan peppercorns (available from most chinese supermarkets)
4 good sized dried chillies, preferably “dried long” (this sort is used in many chinese restaurants)
4 spring onions
1½ teaspoons of cornflour
500g of silken tofu
50 grams ground pork or mince
300ml of chicken stock
14 tablespoons of oil
1 tablespoon of fermented broad bean paste (see the overview for my source)
But, before we can start cooking, you’re going to have to press the moisture out of the tofu so that it can soak up the flavour of the dish. I find that the easiest way to do this is to wrap it between sheets of kitchen roll, three top and three bottom, then place it between a pair of plates or chopping boards with something heavy on top like so:
The kitchen roll should then be changed once it has soaked through, roughly twenty to thirty minutes after you begin pressing, but your silken tofu should be ready to be chopped within the hour.
Rather than just sitting around waiting, though, we’re going to use this time to make our own chilli oil.
To do this, break your dried chillies into a wok with 6 tablespoons of your oil. I used olive oil for this but vegetable would be an equally valid choice as it makes surprisingly little difference to the taste.
Heat the oil as gently as possible to kickstart the infusion without browning the chilli pieces and continue to do so until the oil begins to turn red. If you do this carefully, removing your cooking conduit from the heat as required, you can keep it going for a reasonable length of time, resulting in a higher heat and greater distribution of the chilli flavour.
Don’t worry too much if the pepper pieces do start to darken, though, just turn the heat off and make the most of what you have. The difference this makes is less than a one on my scale anyway and, so long as you stop before their colour turns too far, they aren’t going to taste burnt.
If the worst comes to the worst, you can even use a premade oil, though it may change the final heat and flavour a tad.
Whatever you do, it’s now time to set your chilli oil aside and leave it to continue infusing. We won’t be needing it for a while but letting it stand allows it to keep on picking up flavour from the chillies. And, as it does so, we can get on with the rest of the cooking.
But first, let’s make sure we’ve got everything ready.
The ginger should be skinned and chopped, the garlic crushed and chopped and the spring onions sliced into rings. Your tofu aught to be in cubes and your stock should be warm and ready. Your meat most certainly should not still be frozen.
When you’re sure you’ve got everything prepared, add your remaining eight tablespoons of oil to the wok and begin to heat it on low again, crushing the szechuan peppercorns between your fingers as you do so. This should break them up just enough that they give off their unique, floral, woody and just a little metallic scent before hitting the oil but they should still hold together as you cook them, rather than turning to dust like they might if you were to use the proper tools.
For this particular recipe, those proper grinding tools are not your friends. The purpose of those peppercorns in chinese cooking is for them to release most of their oils into your mouth, not the dish, giving a sudden tingle as you bite down on them that acts as a mild anaesthetic that reduces the heat a little with each mouthful.
It’s a very interesting effect but we do still want at least a little bit of their flavour in the oil. Hence why we crush them slightly before gently cooking them for a couple of minutes.
Then we up the heat of our stove to medium and throw in the ginger and garlic, swirling to make sure they’ve mixed in nicely and cooking them for just a moment before moving on to the next ingredient. The meat.
The meat we’re going to use should be ground or minced fine enough too cook through quickly and without any special attention. Just turn the heat right up to high as you pop it in.
At this point, your wok will be looking a little dry so it’s now time to stir in the bean paste and then add most of our stock, reserving just enough to make the cornflour liquid.
This cornflour mixture can then be added to the main dish once the rest of the stock is simmering.
Let the results bubble away until they’ve thickened a bit, then swirl in your chilli oil, chilli segments and all.
Next, gently toss in your cubed tofu and cook for five more minutes before finally adding the whites of your spring onions.
Once those have turned a little translucent, your meal is ready to serve and eat hot, though it can be reheated later if need be. You have, after all, made enough for two servings of this deliciously rich and strong flavoured dish.
I personally recommend having it with rice, not so much to tame the heat but to tame the ridiculous amount of flavour the Mapo Tofu brings to the table.
And, if the sheer rich, savoury meatiness of it all is too much for you, try garnishing it with the greens from your spring onions. They have an equally strong planty, vegetable flavour that I normally wouldn’t enjoy but I find it really helps in bringing balance to this dish.
Heatwise, you first mouthful will be your hottest, most likely rating in at a nice, medium
but potentially hitting a low
if you managed to make your oil just right.
Either way, however, the dish does cool as you eat it due to the szechuan peppercorns, meaning that your last mouthful will generally be more of a high two.
This particular version of my Mapo Tofu recipe was made for the flavour, not the heat, but it should still be fiery enough to satisfy most people. If, however, it is too mild for you, why not try my four and a half hot anime inspired version?
Or, if you’d rather a bit more chilli flavour without too much extra heat, my vegetarian take on the idea still has most of the dish’s strong meatiness but incorporates chinese facing heaven chillies for a more special spice lover’s taste.
Whichever way you choose to have it, though, I hope you enjoy this wonderful chinese classic.