Sunday’s lunch was a big pile of Sichuan-style food. Yay! This main dish is what we cooked to accompany the Dan Dan Noodle, that I mentioned earlier. Mapo tofu is pretty much a classic. Hot bean paste is cooked together with ground pork and a grip of oil to really develop some spectacularly rich flavors. Tofu and, for my version, leeks and mushrooms are simmered in the infused oil and chicken stock to blend and further develop the flavors. One of the things that I really respect about this tofu dish is that it makes no attempt to be vegetarian. The originator obviously recognized that, if heavily spiced tofu was good, the same tofu cooked in meat sauce would be better. The end result is a dish that is very much comfort food. It is rich, big, and you don’t have to eat a ton of it to fill up.
There are about a million variations on this dish and my version of it is simply one more; it is built off of the version presented in Fuschia Dunlop’s book Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking, which I recommend if you like this type of cooking. My main areas of departure from the source recipe are, 1) less oil, 2) substitution of black bean paste for black beans, 3) use of pork rather than beef, and more of it, 4) more Sichuan pepper and 5) addition of shitake mushrooms, since they go really well with the pork. There are also some differences in method; I don’t simmer the tofu in a brine solution, I simply press some of the water out if using firm tofu. I really don’t like the texture of the brine-simmered version. I also use much less thickener than is typical, preferring the sauce to be about the consistency of a thick hot and sour soup.
I prepare this dish in two cooking vessels, using a wok to brown the pork and cook the hot-bean paste first. I then pour this mixture over the tofu and vegetables in one of my clay pots and simmer the dish in there. This separation of duties is probably not necessary, but it allows me to serve the whole dish in the clay pot, where is kept smoking hot at the table. For lunch on Sunday, we had a bowl of the Dan Dan Noodles, and a small bowl of rice at each place setting, with the Mapo Tofu located in the contested territory/middle of the table. There was also a plate of sliced pears dusted with pink peppercorn to provide a break from the spice. Peanuts are always a nice addition to this flavor combo; placing a bowl of them on the table is a nice touch.
- 1 lb. firm or very firm tofu
- 2 to 3 leeks, sliced into 1 inch pieces
- 2 dried shitake mushrooms, reconstituted in water and sliced
- ⅓ cup peanut oil
- 6 to 8 oz. ground pork
- 2½ Tbs. hot chili bean paste
- ½ tsp. black bean paste
- 1 to 2 tsp. ground dried hot chili
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 Tbs. cornstarch dissolved in ¼ cup water
- 1 tsp roasted Sichuan pepper, ground
- Place tofu block under a weighted plate (about 1 to 2 lbs.) for about 20 to 30 minutes to remove water. Cut block into ½ to 1 inch chunks. Set aside.
- Heat oil in wok over medium high to high heat and fry pork until browned. Reduce the heat and add the hot bean paste and fry 20 to 30 seconds or until oil is a rich red color. Add the black bean paste and ground chili. Cook an additional 30 seconds.
- Add stock, sugar, tofu, leeks and mushrooms. Simmer for 8 to 10 minutes to combine flavors.
- Incrementally add the dissolved corn starch, stirring with each addition, until the sauce has thickened to suit your taste. Add Sichuan pepper, stir to combine and serve.