The key to a delicious and authentic ma po tofu is to use the correct spices and seasonings. Sichuan peppercorns, doubanjiang (broad bean chili paste), fermented black beans, chili paste, garlic, ginger and soy sauce are essential ingredients.
Yes, ma po tofu is a spicy dish which is characteristic of Sichuan cooking. Not only is there heat from the chilies in the doubanjiang and chili paste, there is also the numbing effect supplied by Sichuan peppercorns.
So, is that what the name translates to? Does ma po mean hot and spicy? Well, no. Ma means pockmarked and po is short for popo which means old woman. The dish we know today as ma po tofu is believed to have been invented in the late 1800s by a smallpox-scarred woman known as Mrs. Chen who cooked the dish at her family’s restaurant in Chengdu.
But don’t let the literal translation of the dish’s name form a bias in your mind. It’s delicious. The first time I had it at a Chinese restaurant, I was hooked, and I would look for it on the menu of almost every Chinese restaurant we ate in. Sadly, not all Chinese restaurants serve good ma po tofu. That was why I learned to cook it at home.
Ma Po TofuRecipe by
- 1 350-gram block silken tofu
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 250 grams ground pork
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
- ½ teaspoon chopped ginger
- 1 tablespoon doubanjiang (broad bean chili paste)
- 1 tablespoon fermented black beans mashed and chopped
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon chili paste
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon potato starch or corn starch
- sliced scallions to garnish
Pre-cook the tofu
- Cut the tofu into half-inch cubes.
- Boil about four cups of water and stir in a teaspoon of salt.
- Slide the tofu cubes into the boiling salted water, wait for the water to boil again then count one minute to cook the tofu.
- Drain the tofu and set aside.
Toast the Sichuan peppercorns
- Spread the Sichuan peppercorns in an oil-free pan and toast until you can smell them.
- Grind the Sichuan peppercorns until powdery.
Brown the ground pork
- Heat the cooking oil in a wok.
- Spread the ground pork in the hot oil, sprinkle in a teaspoon of salt and all of ground black pepper. Cook, stirring often, until lightly browned.
- Scoop out the ground pork leaving behind the oil and rendered fat.
Saute the spices
- Reheat the oil and fat in the wok.
- Saute the garlic and ginger until aromatic.
- Add the doubanjiang and continue sauteeing for about half a minute.
- Add the fermented black beans and continue sauteeing until the solids start to separate from the oil.
Cook your ma po tofu
- Add the browned ground pork and stir to coat with the sauteed spices.
- Pour in the broth, stir and bring to a simmer.
- Stir in the chili paste and sugar.
- Add the drained tofu cubes and stir gently.
- Sprinkle in half a teaspoon of the ground Sichuan peppercorns.
- Pour in the soy sauce.
- Set the heat to low, cover the pan and simmer everything together for a few minutes.
- Dissolve the starch a two tablespoons of water, pour into the pan and stir until no longer cloudy and the sauce is thick.
- Ladle your ma po tofu into a serving bowl.
- Sprinkle in the sliced scallions and serve your ma po tofu with rice.