Sunday, April 4, 2010

First Recipe: Mapo Doufu

Mapo Doufu translates to "Pockmarked Old Woman’s Tofu." This dish’s roots supposedly go back centuries to the Chinese city of Chengdu in Szechuan, where an old, disfigured widow was ostracized to the outskirts of town. Because they couldn’t afford to stay in the town while they waited for their goods to sell, many poor farmers and traders also found themselves staying on the outskirts of town. By happy coincidence, the story goes, the farmers and traders eventually found the old woman and her amazing cooking. She soon became the pride of the city and her tofu is still the local favorite. Or something. All I know is this shit is delicious. Had it last night with the fried rice recipe (see today's other blog post).

If you've ever had Mapo Doufu, at a Chinese restaurant, this might be different than what you've eaten. I try to make this dish as authentically as possible—it won’t resemble the nasty, thick, sweet-and-sour Mapo Doufu that you sometimes see at restaurants in the US. Instead, this recipe is fiery, nuanced, complex, and very delicious.

Note that Szechuan Peppercorns are not related to black peppercorns. And because they add a very important smoothing element to the dish, you cannot substitute anything for it. But fret not! The pepper—along with any of the other exotic-sounding ingredients below—can be purchased at any Asian grocer.

Serve this with fried rice, plain rice, or steamed fish.

Prep time: 1 cocktail (30 minutes)

½ tsp freshly toasted and ground Szechuan peppercorn (instructions below)
2 TBSP peanut, untoasted sesame, or chili oil
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2” piece of ginger, grated
2-3 TBSP spicy Sichuan chili bean paste
1-2 TBSP red chili flakes (or 2 tsp Szechuan chili powder, if you can find it)
2 tsp soy sauce
1/4 cup rice wine
1 cup water
3 TBSP white sugar
1 block soft tofu, cut into ¾” cubes and gently patted dry
4 scallions, sliced
2 TBSP cornstarch whisked into 2 TBSP water

Heat a small, dry frying pan on medium heat. Add 1 TBSP peppercorns and toast, stirring constantly, until they are nice and toasted, but not burned--about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and grind in an electric coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle. Measure out ½ tsp and set aside. Discard (or save for later) the remainder.

Heat wok on medium high heat. Add oil and let it get hot. Add garlic, ginger, and chili bean paste. Sauté for 60 seconds. Add all other ingredients, except last three and the peppercorns. Stir well, bring to a boil, then reduce to medium and simmer for a couple minutes. Now taste and adjust flavorings, if anything is out of balance.

Once you’ve adjusted the flavoring, gently stir in the tofu, bring heat up a notch, and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring infrequently. Add the scallions, peppercorns, and cornstarch mixture and gently stir everything together. Serve hot.

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