After a dizzying week of holiday prep, online toys shopping, and cooking/baking for everybody but my own bff/hubby, I’m slowly inching into the New Year with a bit of freestyle, Speedy Gonzalez cooking with what I spy with my curious eyes. From my nearly empty fridge, I found a 1/4 pound of ground pork – what remained from a batch of pork egg rolls my baby diva and I made for her dear martial arts instructor. A pack of silkened tofu sat in the back shelf screaming “Do something with me already”. Scanning the ever-growing (but never completely used up) jars and bottles of Asian condiments on the right fridge door, a familiar and welcoming jar of chili bean paste caught my attention.
We got dinner! Mapo tofu is on the horizon, give or take 20 minutes. This dish is near and dear to my hubby. It’s his warm bowl of hugs during the blistering winter months in Seoul. In his childhood home, meat was also few and far in between. When he was served Mapo tofu with ground beef or pork, it was especially magical.
Tonight’s version is a play off of an old handwritten recipe I wrote years ago. In my college days, I’d worked in a Chinese restaurant where the owners/chefs catered to American-friendly palettes with the familiar Sweet and Sour pork/shrimp, Lemon Chicken slathered with thick sugary goo, beef and broccoli, etc. Yet in the kitchen, the owners’ father, a fierce but subtly sweet man, roughly in his 80’s, nicknamed “Grandpa” would cook these amazingly memorable dishes for the employees after their shifts ended. In minutes, he’d toss out these outlandishly different (to me, anyways), yet insanely delicious home-style, Chinese comfort foods for which remains unknown and unnamed to me. It’s the kind of food you would find if you had a truly nice Chinese friend from your childhood (like I did), who invited you to dinner and her grandmother and mom cooked these unusual dishes to the eyes but you can’t seem to put your chopsticks down even after your belly has cried “Uncle” several times. Yeah! Those!
The only dish Grandpa made that I knew the name of was Mapo tofu. On a good day and when the mood struck him, he would explained the history behind certain ingredients and entrees. He went into great details about different sauces, where they’re produced, and what to look for for best quality. As open as he was about his food knowledge and experiences, he refused to spill the beans on his Mapo tofu recipe (The internet just came to existence but Google was unheard of.). Nonetheless, I was persistent in replicating this mysterious dish. Every time I knew he had the ingredients ready to cook, I would casually walk by a few times. It only took a year or two of spying, numerous tasting to identify key ingredients, test cooking with various bean pastes/sauces, and many failed attempts to compose the final recipe. One day, after repeated failures, I was ready to toss in the towel. I recalled scooping a hot biteful onto my chopsticks from the hot pan, expecting to be disgusted with disappointments, once again. What I tasted was Grandpa’s Mapo! GET OUT (a Seinfeld catch phrase)! It had depth: a richness from the hot bean paste, a spicy zing from the ground Sichuan peppercorns, and a heartiness of the grounded meat followed by the smoothness of the silkened tofu. Harmony!
Since then, I’ve made a few riffs to the recipe depending upon my moods, for whom I’m cooking and availability of ingredients. Most of the time, the ground pork and silkened tofu is a definite per my hubby’s request. I sometimes make a veggie version with tofu and dried shiitake mushrooms for my parents with the spicy note reduced quite a bit.
Here’s my fiery take on Mapo Tofu.
1/4 lb. ground pork
3 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp rice wine
2 tsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/2 cup tap water
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1/2 tsp granulated sugar
1 tbsp garlic, minced
1/2 tbsp ginger, minced
1 small shallot, minced
2 stalks green onions chopped, green and white parts separated
2 tbsp hot bean chili paste (Pixian variety, preferably)
1 tbsp hot chili blackbean sauce (optional, but I prefer to include)
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, lightly toasted in hot pan, then smashed or grounded finely in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder
1/2 tsp dried chili flakes (optional, for more heat)
1 pkg silken or soft tofu, 14 oz.
Canola or peanut oil for cooking
In Bowl #1, add 3 tsp light soy, corn starch, pinch of black pepper, and rice wine. Stir well to form a slurry. Add ground pork to the bowl and mix well with slurry. Set aside to marinate for 15-20 minutes.
In Bowl #2, add sesame oil, tap water, 2 tbsp light soy, and sugar. Mix well. Set aside.
In a small pan or wok on medium heat, lightly toast the Sichuan peppercorns until fragrant. Smash or ground finely in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Set aside.
Preheat a wok on med/high heat until lightly smokey. Drizzle 1-2 tbsp of canola oil into the wok. Swirl to coat the bottom of wok, until smokey. Add aromatics: ginger, garlic, shallots, green onions (white part only), stir fry for 1/2 to 1 minute until fragrant. Add ground pork, spread meat evenly to cover the wok’s bottom, breaking up chunky pieces with a spatula. Brown meat thoroughly.
Add hot bean chili paste (Pixian kind for a more red, deeper note), hot chili blackbean sauce if using, finely grounded Sichuan peppercorns, dried chili flakes if using, and stir well. Note: If hot bean chili paste is too chunky, smash/chop finely with a cleaver.
Add the water, sesame oil, light soy, sugar mixture from Bowl #2 to the wok. Stir gently until liquid is evenly bubbling. Add silken tofu. Gently stir tofu into the sauce, breaking up large tofu chunks into bite size pieces. Cook for another 3-4 minutes.
Toss green onions (green parts) on top of dish.
Serve hot with steamed Jasmine rice.
Serves 2-3 as a main course or 4-5 with other dishes/sides.