Mapo tofu. It's my new favorite dish, and here's the recipe I've made
four times so far. On top of that, I've ordered this 6 times from two local Sichuan restaurants in the past two months. It's that good.
Mapo tofu has small blocks of tofu enrobed in a chili-bean-pork sauce dosed heavily with Sichuan peppercorns. It's spicy, tangy, sweet, funky, earthy... a real explosion of flavors that will leave your mouth tingling. That's the magic that the peppercorns bring to the table. The first time I tasted it was at "Iron Chef" Chen Kenichi's restaurant in the Roppongi part of Tokyo. That branch was best known for the mapo tofu and the chili shrimp, but he also had steamed dumplings drenched in an unbelievably good sesame sauce, and a black sesame noodle soup that I would be perfectly happy drowning in.
This one requires some specialty ingredients that I didn't have in my cupboard prior to my obsession with Sichuan food:
Dried fermented black beans - somewhat soft, very salty and pungent
Chili bean paste - also known as toban djan, a mixture of chilis, fermented broad beans and soy beans; sweet, funky, spicy, salty. This provides the base flavor of the sauce, but too much will leave a strong aftertaste.
Shao xing rice wine - use dry sherry if you want, but a bottle of this cost me $2.19.
Sichuan peppercorns - OK, I had these, but this was the first recipe that really used them to full effect. Tiny husks of the seeds from a shrub. The seeds do nothing, it's all in the reddish husk. These will add a sort of brightness to the dish and complement the chili peppers. They will also make your whole mouth tingle. Toast some in a frying pan just until fragrant, then put them in to a pepper grinder.
UPDATE: I just bought a new bag of peppercorns, and they are 100 times more potent than the old ones I had kicking around the cupboard. I'm going to cook this dish again this week just to give them a try.
No pictures this time. Honestly, it's not a beautiful dish. On to the recipe.
From appetiteforchina.com with variations.
Serves 4 to 5 as part of a multi-course meal, or 2 to 3 as a main. Serve over steamed white rice.
Prep everything first before firing up the wok. Things move quickly once the pork hits the oil.
1 lb ground pork
Mix the sauce and set it aside:
2 c chicken stock
2 T fermented black beans, rinsed and chopped finely
4 T chili bean paste (toban djan)
4 tsp soy sauce
2 T shao xing cooking wine
2 T sesame oil
1 T chili oil (optional)
1/2 tsp ground Sichuan peppercorn
Prep the rest:
2 leeks, white parts thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 T minced ginger
2 scallions, greens sliced into inch long pieces, white parts finely sliced
1 lb soft tofu, sliced into 1/2 inch cubes
1 T cornstarch mixed with 2 T water
extra ground Sichuan peppercorn for sprinkling on top
Now begin. Heat 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a wok over high heat until very hot, then add the marinated pork. Stir fry until the pork begins to really brown. Add the garlic, ginger, leek, and white part of the scallions, and stir fry for a minute.
Add the prepared sauce. Scrape up all the browned pork bits and bring the broth to a simmer. Reduce the heat and gently add the tofu and scallion greens. Allow the tofu to cook for a couple of minutes to absorb the sauce. Stir in the cornstarch mixture and simmer until the sauce has thickened. Sprinkle the scallion greens on top and dust with ground Sichuan peppercorn. Serve over steamed rice.