I recently returned to the States after a year of living in China. And not once since that return have I ordered Chinese food—because, guys? Real Chinese food is tough to come by ‘round here.
Fortune cookies? Not actually a Chinese thing.
General Tso’s chicken? Totally a Western invention.
My knowledge of Chinese food no longer stops at takeout boxes of crab rangoon on drunken college nights—now, it’s fava beans pan-fried with chili peppers, whole sweet potatoes as street snacks and lazy susans on every table for easy sharing.
And considering what a challenge it can be to replicate traditional food from thousands of miles away, this Mapo Tofu is the closest thing I’ve had to authentic Chinese food since living there.The keys to authenticity here are the right sauce and the right peppercorns—pretty obscure in the West, so if authenticity is your thing, plan on a trip to the nearest Asian supermarket. Otherwise, feel free to substitute with a few tablespoons of miso and some hot sauce.
Chinese (vegetarian) Ma Po Tofu
Serves 4 with a side of rice
3 shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
5-6 oz extra-firm tofu, frozen
3/4 tsp dark soy sauce
16 oz medium or medium-firm tofu
Generous 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
1 rounded tsp ginger, minced
3 tbsp chile bean sauce Pixian kind if possible
About 1 tsp sugar
1/2-1 tsp regular soy sauce
2-3 tbsp canola or other light oil
1 1/13 c water
1 tbsp cornstarch, dissolved in 2-3 tbsp water
1-2 large green onions, green and white parts, cut on the diagonal
Remove firm tofu from freezer and allow to thaw 3-4 hours before beginning.
Finely chop de-stemmed mushrooms. Transfer to a bowl.
Place firm tofu in the sink and press on it to release as much of the water as possible, until it resembles a moist sponge. Crumble firm tofu into the mushroom bowl, being sure to leave some larger chunks for texture (I used a large cheese grater). Add dark soy sauce, stir well to combine, and set aside.
Cut medium/medium-firm tofu into 1/2-inch cubes. Set aside.
In a large wok or skillet, toast peppercorns over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, until fragrant and slightly darkened. Cool briefly, then pound with a mortar and pestle or grind in a spice grinder (a coffee grinder will also work). Set aside.
Heat oil on high in the wok or skillet. Add crumbled tofu and mushroom, then cook for 1 minute until glossy and aromatic. Add minced ginger and chile bean sauce. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until ingredients are reddish-brown in color. Add sugar and regular soy sauce, stir to combine, then add cubed medium/medium-firm tofu.
Gently stir or give the wok a shake to combine. Add the water, bring to a vigorous simmer and cook for about 3 minutes to allow tofu to absorb the flavors of the sauce.
Taste the sauce and add another pinch of sugar, if needed. Add the green onion, stir, then add enough of the cornstarch slurry to thicken. Sprinkle in ground peppercorn, re-stir to incorporate, then transfer to a shallow bowl. Let rest for 5 minutes while flavors marry, then enjoy with plenty of hot rice.What’s your favorite real, actual Chinese dish? I loooooove dan bing and eggs with tomatoes!
photos by Bernard Goldbach // Taro Taylor // cc