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Recipe: Mapo tofu is far from bland or boring

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Mapo tofu nachos. Crunchy tortilla chips complement mapo tofu’s boldness well.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Mapo tofu nachos. Crunchy tortilla chips complement mapo tofu’s boldness well.

Anyone who says tofu is bland or boring hasn’t had mapo tofu, the intoxicatingly spicy, fragrant dish from China’s Sichuan province.

Unlike the gentle Vietnamese tofu dishes I grew up with in Southern California, “mapo” first captured my attention when I was a teenager in the early 1980s, when my dad and his buddy — whom we always reverently called Mr. Lee — let me tag along for lunch at a Chinese restaurant. As the adults talked, I ate as much of the tender tofu cubes and piquant meat sauce as I could without seeming piggish.

More than smitten, I became fascinated with the slithery brow-wiper, going on to research it in library books as a youth, traveling to Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan province and the dish’s birthplace) to understand its origins, and later experimenting with it in my own kitchen.

Mapo tofu is sometimes translated as “pockmarked old woman’s bean curd.” (In Chinese, “ma” refers to pockmarks, and “po” can refer to an older woman.) The name is an inelegant nod to the smallpox-scarred skin of a Mrs. Chen, who is said to have invented the dish in the late 1800s at her family’s restaurant in northern Chengdu.

As the story goes, the porters who lugged oil to market requested an affordable dish made of tofu and meat, cooked up with some of the oil they transported. Mrs. Chen seasoned her creation with Sichuan staples, and it became a hit, its popularity only growing over time.

When I finally visited Chengdu in 2010, decades after my first taste of mapo tofu, I knew I wanted to try a version as close to Mrs. Chen’s as possible. Her restaurant no longer exists in its original form, but I headed to Chen Mapo Tofu, hoping that its recipe truly descended from her, as some have claimed. My travel companions eagerly awaited this bona fide mapo tofu, and it finally appeared, the tofu and nubbins of meat under a thick layer of fiery red oil and lots of huajiao, or Sichuan peppercorn. But, surprisingly, it lacked the savory depth I had expected from its central seasoning, a fermented chile bean paste known as doubanjiang.

To deepen my understanding of doubanjiang, I checked in with Yu Bo, an internationally respected Sichuan chef, based in Chengdu, who organized a visit to a centuries-old producer in Pixian, a suburb of Chengdu. There, in a walled facility the size of a baseball diamond, were rows of large, lidded urns filled with heady chiles and broad beans fermenting in the sun. I peered inside and inhaled the dark-red mixture, pondering my next mapo.

I hit pay dirt when Zhong Yi, a graduate student at Sichuan University, invited me and my companions to her family’s Mid- Autumn Festival celebration. Her grandmother presided, quietly tasting and tweaking as everyone scrambled around the kitchen. The family made a dozen dishes, including a mapo tofu not as oily or fiery as Chen Mapo Tofu’s.

They had also cooked extra beef seasoned with doubanjiang and mapo’s other ingredients — everything but the tofu. Toward the end of the meal, Zhong Yi’s aunt made a 13th dish by spooning the beef atop thin wheat noodles and gleefully presented it as “fast dan dan noodles.” That playful gesture was a lasting lesson in mapo tofu’s potential.

For 10 years, I’ve thought about the family’s improvisation and mapo’s culinary elasticity, but, not being of Chinese heritage and lacking a strong connection to Sichuan, I didn’t stray from the conventional recipe that was a solid part of my repertoire.

Then, last year, I tried a mapo tofu lasagna from chef Mei Lin at Nightshade in Los Angeles and read about Yu Bo’s mapo tofu with avocado. Only then did I feel free to experiment. I whirled up a tub of silken tofu, simmered it for a few minutes with the fermented ingredients. Together, they became a creamy sauce that expressed mapo’s essence in a slightly mellower form. It was perfect for spaghetti.

Still, there was leftover sauce. Its funky spiciness inspired a queso connection, so I served it with tortilla chips. The chips’ crunch complemented mapo tofu’s boldness. Eventually, I used the sauce for superb mapo nachos, embellished with melty cheese, pickled jalapenos, olives and cilantro.

Who would have thought such a simple dish could spur a nearly 40-year fascination? Mapo tofu had me at first bite, and, while I will always appreciate its roots, tinkering has proved delicious.

MAPO TOFU SAUCE

  • 16 ounces medium or medium-firm tofu (if unavailable, go with firm)
  • 1 rounded teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 6 ounces ground beef or pork (preferably 80% or 85% lean), roughly chopped to loosen
  • 2-1/2 tablespoons fermented chile bean sauce or paste (doubanjiang), plus more if needed
  • 1 tablespoon fermented black beans (douchi, optional)
  • 1 teaspoon minced ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 rounded teaspoon sugar, plus more if needed
  • Fine sea salt, to taste
  • 2 large scallions, trimmed and cut on a sharp bias into thin, 2-inch pieces
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 3 tablespoons water
  • Cooked white rice, for serving

Cut tofu into 3/4-inch cubes and put in a bowl. Bring a kettle of water to a rolling boil. Turn off heat, and when boiling subsides, pour hot water over tofu to cover. Set aside 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a large (14-inch) wok or 12-inch skillet over medium. Toast peppercorns 2 to 3 minutes, until super fragrant and slightly darkened. (A wisp of smoke is normal.) Let cool briefly, then pound with a mortar and pestle, or pulse in a spice grinder.

Set a strainer over a measuring cup, then add tofu to drain. Reserve 1-1/2 cups of soaking water, discarding the rest. Set tofu and reserved soaking water near stove with peppercorns and other prepped ingredients for swift cooking.

Reheat wok or skillet over high. When hot — a few drops of water added to pan should sizzle and evaporate within seconds — swirl in oil to evenly coat, then add meat. Stir and mash into cooked and crumbly pieces, 1 to 2 minutes.

Add fermented chile bean sauce and black bean sauce (if using), ginger and red-pepper flakes (if using). Cook about 2 minutes longer, stirring constantly, until everything is vivid reddish brown.

Add soy sauce and sugar, stir to combine, then add drained tofu. Gently stir or shake pan to combine ingredients without breaking up tofu too much.

Add reserved 1-1/2 cups soaking water, bring to a vigorous simmer and cook about 3 minutes, shaking pan occasionally, to let tofu absorb flavors of the sauce.

Slightly lower heat and taste. If needed, add another 1/2 tablespoon of chile bean sauce for heat, a pinch of salt for savoriness or a sprinkle of sugar to tame heat.

Stir in scallions. Stir cornstarch slurry, then stir enough into mapo tofu to thicken sauce to a soupy rather than a gravylike finish. Sprinkle in ground peppercorns, give mixture one last stir to incorporate, then transfer to a shallow bowl. Serve immediately with lots of hot rice. Makes about 4 cups (4 servings).

MAPO TOFU SPAGHETTI

  • 1 tablespoon fine sea salt
  • 12 ounces dried spaghetti
  • 2-1/2 cups Mapo Tofu Sauce (recipe at left)
  • 1 large scallion, trimmed and cut on a sharp bias into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
  • Ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns, for garnish

Fill a large pot about halfway with water and add salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then add spaghetti and cook until al dente, according to package instructions.

Reserve about 3/4 cup of pasta cooking water, then drain spaghetti. Briefly rinse to remove some of the starch and shake to expel excess water.

In same pot (or a clean large skillet, if you wish), warm Mapo Tofu Sauce and 1/3 cup reserved pasta cooking water over medium heat. When hot and bubbling, add spaghetti to sauce. Use tongs to stir and coat strands. Stir in extra pasta water by the tablespoon for a creamier, silkier finish, if desired.

Stir in scallions and cook very briefly until just softened. Divide pasta among plates or shallow bowls. Serve topped with cheese and Sichuan peppercorns. Serves 4 to 6.

MAPO TOFU NACHOS

  • 5 to 6 ounces corn tortilla chips (about 5 cups)
  • About 1-1/4 cups Mapo Tofu Sauce (recipe at left), at room temperature
  • 2 medium scallions, trimmed and sliced on bias into 3/4-inch pieces
  • 4 ounces shredded Oaxacan, Monterey Jack or other mild-flavored melty cheese (about 1-1/3 cups)
  • Ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns, to taste
  • 1/3 cup sliced or coarsely chopped pitted olives, such as black, green or a combination (optional)
  • 2 whole pickled jalapenos, sliced (optional)
  • 1/3 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (optional)

Heat a toaster oven (or standard oven) to 350 degrees. Line baking pan with parchment or foil, leaving a little overhang on 2 sides to make it easier to transfer nachos later. Arrange half the chips in the pan, laying them flat. (Some overlap is fine.)

Use a spoon to spread a heaping 1/2 cup Mapo Tofu Sauce over chips. Sprinkle with half the scallions, cheese and Sichuan peppercorns. Repeat with a second layer of chips, Mapo Tofu Sauce, scallions, cheese and peppercorns.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until cheese is melted and gently sizzling. Remove from oven, lift parchment or foil to remove nachos from pan, then use a spatula to carefully slide nachos to a platter. Top with any combination of olives, pickled jalapenos and cilantro, if desired. Serves 4.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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