|Chinese Mapo Tofu|
I have never been an early bird, so I always miss the morning freshness, and at this time of the year, the morning chilliness as well. This morning, I had to get up relatively early, I could almost feel the winter just there — outside the window. Our bathroom windows are made with those ‘frosted glass’. With the bright morning day light, and with the little cold draught through the gaps of the window frames, it looks like the window glass in China at home in winter. — In the deep winter days in my hometown, the temperature drops dramatically, after a cold night, windows are all covered by heavy frost next day morning, you could not see outside until it would melt close to noon. But if it has snowed during the night, then the sun would break out next morning, the bright reflection of the sunlight on the white snow would shinning on the windows as well.
So here, with the frosted windows, it really looks like …No, it is what I feel like — I was standing in front of the windows back home while outside was super cold, and snowing, but super brightly beautiful. Every time, mornings like this, windows like this, feel like this, it takes me a few minutes to be back to reality. Did I really use to hate the cold winter in Northeast China before? — Now, all I want is to be there, to see the snow and feel the coldness…
Mapo tofu is probably one of the most famous Chinese tofu dishes ever. I bet if you like Chinese food, you must have already ordered this one a few times when dining in the Chinese restaurant. It is famous for its spicy but super delicious taste. But you have to like spicy food to appreciate this tofu dish. This spiciness is different to the others, it marks the feature of sichuan food.
It is said that Mapo tofu was created by the wife of a restaurant owner Chen in Chengdu, Sichuan, around 150 years ago. The restaurant was by the side of a wide bridge, and there were many hard-working workers passing by and dine there. Many workers would order tofu or simple beef dishes, and often they would give her some vegetables and oil type of things from their baskets and ask her to cook. After some time, she acquired a unique skill for cooking tofu.
Although the surname of the lady was ‘Liu’, since she had lots of freckles on her face, people gave a nick name ‘Chen Ma Po’. (Ma here means the freckles, and Po (2) in Chinese character often refers to older ladies.) The dish became one of the most featured food in Chengdu / Sichuan. Since then, the dish is called ‘Mapo’ tofu.
The taste of ‘Mapo’ tofu embodies the features of Sichuan food — from the combination of chilis and sichuan peppercorn, which the later one gives you a cooler taste, and the spicy taste feels even stronger after swallowing.
When cooking this dish at home it is not easy to create the exact same taste, I always feel there is something missing. Well, to begin with, the original recipe requires good ‘stock’, which we don’t normally prepare at home. Secondly, the ‘real’ sichuan peppercorn is slightly different to what we could normally get from the shops. (The real one is slight bigger, and has stronger taste.)
The easiest way to cook ‘Mapo’ tofu is probably to buy a sachet of ‘Mopo’ tofu seasoning, which is sold everywhere in the supermarkets in China and in certain Chinese supermarkets abroad as well. Or to use ‘ready-to-eat’ preserved sichuan spicy chilli sauce, which I used in this recipe. The last option is to make the chilli taste yourself from sichuan peppercorn and crushed chillis. (I still used sichuan peppercorn and crushed chillis with preserved spicy chilli sauce though, just for enriching its flavor.)
Oh, there is another thing, I just realized that nowadays, in many Chinese restaurants, when you order ‘Mapo’ tofu, it always comes with some meat mince as combination, however, I don’t remember this was the case in Northeastern Mapo tofu dishes. So I only make the ones without meat (I used mushroom in this recipe, but it is an optional). But if you are vegetarian, when you order this dish, do ask even the menu makes you think it is a vegetarian dish.
O, o, I have talked too much, here is how I made it, of course, there are many other recipes for the same dish.
Tofu (1 piece of medium firm tofu), button mushroom (optional, only used as ‘assistant ingredient))
Oil, spring onion, garlic, salt, dark and light soy sauce (dark soy sauce is for the colour, light soy sauce is for the taste), white sugar, cooking wine, sichuan peppercorn, corn flour, crushed chilli, preserved spicy chilli sauce (optional)
1) Chop the tofu in small cubes, slice the button mushroom.
2) Chop around 3 gloves garlic and 2/3 of a whole spring onion.
3) Mix 1 full teaspoon of corn flour with water.
1) In a heated wok, pour in oil to briefly fry the tofu. (Or you can briefly boil the tofu).
2) Remove the tofu to a plate, and remove excess oil, but leave around 4 tablespoons oil in the wok.
3) Add chopped spring onion and garlic, 1 small teaspoon of crushed chilli (or much less if you are not fan of spicy), 1 small pinch of sichuan peppercorn (probably around 15 peppercorns), then add 1 1/2 tablespoon of preserved spicy chilli sauce (or more if you fancy sichuan spiciness).
4) Add sliced mushroom first to stir fry, then add chopped tofu in.
5) Add 1 tablespoon of cooking wine, 1 tablespoon of dark soy sauce, and 1 tablespoon of light soy sauce, then add 1/3 cup of water (or stock), turn down the fire to medium — low), keep it cooking in the wok for further 5 minutes.
6) Add the corn flour mix. When the sauce in the wok is thickening and bubbling, turn down the fire — take the dish to a serving plate. –
I like to have it with plain boiled rice, so I could have a better taste of tofu.
If you do not to ‘accidently’ chew the sichuan peppercorn in the mouth, remove them from the wok after frying them well in the oil.