Home-Style Ma Po Tofu
Ma Po Tofu (also known as Grandma’s pock-marked Tofu) as taught to me by my mother-in-law
Ma Po Tofu is a classic Szechuan dish rumored to have been invented by a widower with a pock-marked face who lived in Chengdu. Whatever the story, this humble dish is something that transcends the sum of its parts–if you know which ingredients to purchase, and a few little cooking secrets. This is the first dish my husband ever cooked for me, about a month after we started dating. (It’s also the first dish my mother-in-law re-taught me, when she realized my husband hadn’t been listening to her all these years, and never picked up on the nuances!)
Firstly, good ma po tofu is a rustic, yet delicately balanced dish–as much as I love pork, the ground pork in this dish serves as more of a condiment, or a flavoring to the tofu. I used to use more pork when I made this dish without guidance, but my mother-in-law showed me the way. More is not always better. The ingredients need to be in harmony.
Secondly, the texture of this dish is just as important as its flavor. When cooking the ground pork, you need to press down on it with your spatula, breaking up and crumbling the pork until it becomes pebbly. This way, the bits of pork can cling to the soft, spicy cubes of tofu.
And thirdly, the quality of the tofu, and the spicy bean paste is integral to this dish. Which is not to say you need to go seeking out something expensive. I grew up on Sunrise brand soft tofu, which you can get locally at Uwajimaya for 99 cents a package. My mother-in-law only uses this brand of hot Szechuan bean sauce for this dish. It’s also available at Uwajimaya.
And lastly–this should be self-explanatory–toast and grind your Szechuan peppercorns before starting this dish. Simply place the peppercorns in a hot pan, and shake the pan lightly until they start smoking, and begin to pop. Remove the pan from the heat, and either grind them in your spice grinder, or do what my mother-in-law taught me: simply place the peppercorns between two sheets of paper towel, and roll the over with a rolling pin. (Use your muscles so they are crushed as fine as possible.)Home-Style Ma Po Tofu 3/4 lb. ground pork (use Kurobota pork, or regular ground pork–not lean) 1 tbsp Shao Xing wine 1 1/2 tsp. light soy sauce 1 1/2 tsp. dark soy sauce 1 tsp sesame oil 2 tbsp cornstarch, divided 2 tbsp vegetable oil 2 tbsp chili oil 4 cloves garlic, finely mined 3 scallions, finely minced 30 oz. (900 grams) soft tofu drained and diced into 1/2″ cubes 1/4 to 1/3 cup Szechuan hot bean sauce (depending on how salty/hot you’d like this dish to be)
toasted, ground Szechuan peppercorns to taste (1-2 tbsp depending on how “ma la”–numbingly spicy–you’d like this dish to be)
In a bowl, mix together the ground pork, Shao Xing wine, light and dark soy sauces, sesame oil, and 1 tbsp cornstarch. Set aside to marinade for 20 minutes.
In a large skillet, heat the vegetable oil and the chili oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and scallions, and stir-fry for a minute to allow the flavor to release into the oil. Add the ground pork, crumbling it with your spatula so the pieces of meat become small and pebbly. (Take your time–this is an important step, and you want to do a thorough job.)Carefully, add the tofu to the pan, and heat through. Add the hot bean sauce and toss carefully, making sure the sauce coats all the tofu and pork evenly. Make a slurry with the remaining 1 tbsp of cornstarch and 2 tbsp water. Add the slurry to the pan. When it bubbles up and thickens, remove it from the heat and serve with steamed rice.