I am obsessed with Sichuanese food, which is very unfortunate because my city is a Chinese restaurant wasteland. Fortunately, I live near a branch of the Asian grocery chain, H-Mart, which sells most, if not all, of the ingredients you need to make your own numbing/burning Sichuan concoctions. And, after much experimentation, I think I have arrived at a near-perfect recipe for Ma Pa tofu, the classic Sichuanese comfort food that combines tofu with meat, chillies and Sichuan peppercorns. I actually prefer this version to those I have eaten at Sichuanese restaurants, which tend to serve a more authentic version of the dish that is swimming in oil. (According to my cook book library, which includes just about every Sichuanese cook book available on Amazon, many authentic Sichuanese dishes require the chef to measure out cups and cups of oil like water or chicken broth, which is the only aspect of the cuisine I find a bit unappealing.) Anyway, I have been basically living on this version of ma pa tofu for the past two weeks. Warning 1: It is VERY hot. Which is the point. So if you don’t like hot food, you probably should not bother. This is not the kind of dish where you can dial back the chilies to, say, 1/4 tea spoon because, well, then it will not be ma pa tofu anymore. Warning 2: This dish requires some ingredients that you probably can’t find in your local Safeway or Kroger. But I promise, it’s worth it, even if you have to order some of the spices from Amazon.
Ma Pa Tofu
Note: This recipe is adapted from the Wall Street Journal article “Lust for Spice” by Andrea Nguyen
1 pound firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 teaspoons Sichuan pepper corns
1-3 table spoons of canola oil, peanut oil or other oil with a very high smoke point
1.25 pound package of ground turkey (Note: I made a vegetarian version the other night with an equivalent amount dried mushrooms and cloud ear fungus and thought it was a little too mushroomy. I think it would have been better to have substituted an assortment of fresh vegetables, including some fresh mushrooms. You can also make this dish with ground or shredded pork (which is the authentic way) or beef. )
3 teaspoons minced, fresh ginger
6.5 teaspoons chili flakes (I imagine you could use generic red pepper flakes but I use Thai chili flakes)
3 table spoons fermented black beans (These are optional. They’re delicious but i had to order them from amazon.)
9 table spoons Chinese chili bean sauce
3 teaspoons sugar (I’ve successfully subbed in Splenda and brown sugar)
6 teaspoons soy sauce
6 scallions, sliced into small slivers
About a cup and a half of hot water or chicken broth
Boil several cups of water and pour it over the sliced tofu. Let the tofu soak in its hot bath for 15 minutes, then drain.
Warm a large (10-12-inch) non-stick skillet over moderate heat. [A digression–although I own a wok, I started using a non-stick, flat skillet for stir frying after Cook’s Illustrated made the very valid point that American stoves are not built for woks because they generally do not have pits that the wok can sink into so that flames surround the outside of the sloped exterior. When you cook with a wok on a flat stove top, much of the wok’s surface area is inadequately heated.] Toast the pepper corns in the skillet (or, if you insist, wok) until they fragrant and slightly dark (2-3 minutes.) Grind them with a coffee grinder, spice grinder or mortar and pestle.
In the meantime, prep all your food for the stir fry because it goes really fast and you won’t have time to prep while you cook.
In a small bowl, combine the ginger, chili flakes, fermented black beans (if using), and chili bean sauce.
In another small bowl, combine the soy sauce and sugar.
Slice the scallions.
Put all the ingredients (the 2 small bowls, the scallions, the meat, the ground pepper corns, the chicken broth, if using, or the water) next to your stove.
Now, it’s showtime! Heat the oil (in the skillet or the wok) until it is very hot, i.e. smoking a little.
Stir fry the meat for about two minutes until it loses all its pink color. Add the contents of the first bowl (i.e. the ginger, chili flakes, beans, and chilli bean sauce.) Stir fry about 2 more minutes before dumping in the contents of the second bowl (soy sauce, sugar). Add the (soaked, drained) tofu to the skillet/wok. Stir to cover everything with sauce. Now add the cup and a half of broth or water. Cook about 3 more minutes, to thicken up the sauce. (The original recipe calls for adding cornstarch, which I found unnecessary.) Turn off the heat and sprinkle the contents of the pan with scallions and the ground Sichuan pepper corns. Eat with plenty of water by your side and, if you’d like, some rice to soak up the sauce. This dish keeps well and tastes great as a leftover. It’s also good as a condiment/sauce to sprinkle for eggs and other bland food.