After returning from my trip to Lao Sze Chuan in Chicago, I was determined to start cooking Szechuan food at home. Szechuan cuisine has big flavors and serious heat, making it particularly good now as the weather turns cold. To warm up, I have found myself enjoying Ma Po Tofu about every other week.
Like many Szechuan dishes, Ma Po Tofu has bold flavors and is meant to be tear-inducingly spicy, making your forehead sweat and nose run, although the great thing about making it at home is that you can set the heat level wherever you want. Traditionally it is made with ground pork but, like the pros at Lao Sze Chuan, I leave it out, letting the flavor-packed tofu stand on its own in this all-vegetarian (indeed, vegan) dish. What makes this recipe good for a weeknight is that the tofu is essentially braised in its sauce rather than stir fried, so the process is relaxed and quite forgiving.
Admittedly, Ma Po Tofu requires some specialty ingredients to be done correctly, but they are easily obtained and the dish is perfectly fine without them. I purchase red and black vinegar in Chinatown, but balsamic vinegar is not a bad substitute. I source fermented black beans and Szechuan peppercorns from Amazon, of all places, but if you can’t find them just leave them out. If you can find it, though, Szechuan pepper has an incredible floral scent with a mouth-numbing tingling quality that adds an extra dimension to your tofu dish that has no substitute. If you like Szechuan cuisine, it’s worth the investment, even if just for the floral aroma as you grind it into a coarse powder.
- 16 ounces medium-firm tofu
- 1-inch piece ginger
- 1 tablespoon garlic
- 1 teaspoon fermented black beans
- 4-6 shiitake mushrooms
- 2 scallions
- 1 teaspoon szechuan peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons sesame or canola oil
- 2 tablespoons vegetarian oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon chili garlic sauce
- 1 teaspoon szechuan chili in oil or hot sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons Chinese red vinegar or black vinegar (or balsamic vinegar)
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- Do your prep: Drain the tofu and cut it into cubes. Julienne the ginger and place it in a bowl of cold water. Chop the garlic and black beans. Dice the mushrooms. Slice the scallions. Grind the Szechuan peppercorns with a mortar and pestle or smash them as well as you can with a heavy object. Enjoy the floral scent that is released. You're just about done.
- Heat a wok or saucepan over medium heat. When the wok is hot, add the sesame oil and half the Szechuan pepper (reserving the other half for later) and stir rapidly for 30 seconds. Add the garlic and black beans and stir rapidly for another 30 seconds. Remove the wok from the heat.
- Add to the wok the oyster sauce, chili garlic sauce, Szechuan chili in oil, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, mushrooms, and tofu with 1 cup of water. Stir carefully, making sure not to break up the tofu. Turn the heat to high and bring the tofu and sauce to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer. Add half the scallions, including all of the white parts. At this point, taste the sauce and, if you desire more heat, add more chili garlic sauce or Szechuan chili. Don't be afraid.
- Mix the cornstarch with ¼ cup of cold water in a small bowl. Pour the mixture into the wok and stir gently. Simmer for another minute, stirring carefully from time to time, until the sauce thickens.
- Transfer the tofu to a serving bowl and top it with the ginger, a drizzle of sesame oil, the remaining scallions, and the remaining Szechuan pepper. Serve with rice, a big glass of water and a box of tissues. Enjoy!
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