Chinese Soul Food



This is Hsiao-Ching Chou's blog about life as a working mom and simple Chinese cooking.




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Chinese Soul Food

Ma Po Tofu


When I go to a Chinese restaurant, especially one that specializes in Sichuanese dishes, I always order ma po tofu and hope that the chef doesn't stray off the path by adding peas and carrots, for example, or adding so much soy sauce that the dish is brown instead of chili-paste red. I always hope that the sauce has enough Sichuan peppercorn in it that it gives just the right amount of numbing spice -- the namesake ma la.

There is lore about how the dish was concocted and controversy about what ingredients are authentic (the variations on the theme are astonishing). 

I've never been to the Sichuan Province, but I'm told that the the most authentic ma po tofu has a layer of chili oil atop the dish. I like the spice, but not the slick, so I've reduced the amount of oil to 3 tablespoons to minimize the greasiness. I use green onions instead of the traditional green garlic, because green onions are easier to find. I also like a drizzle of sesame oil at the end, which isn't traditional, but the flavor is good. 

Ma Po Tofu
Serves 2-4 as part of a dinner


1 block of medium-firm or soft (not silken) tofu, about 1 pound
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons peanut oil (or canola oil; don't use olive oil)
3/4 cup (about 4 ounces) ground unseasoned pork
1 tablespoon chili sauce*
1 tablespoon chili bean sauce**
Salt to taste
2 stalks green onions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons water to create a slurry
1 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns***
1/4 of teaspoon sesame oil 

Cut open the tofu package and drain out the liquid. Cut the tofu into cubes about 1-inch-by-1/2-inch. It doesn't have to be exact.

Place the tofu in a small pot with about 2 cups water and 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a simmer and then turn off the heat. Let the tofu sit in the hot water while you finish preparing the other ingredients.

Heat the wok over high heat. Add 3 tablespoons oil and heat for about 10 seconds. Add the ground pork and stir fry until brown. Add both chili sauces. Stir fry well to combine the hot sauces with the pork. A note on the chili sauces: I used two different kinds that happen to be found at two different stores. You do not have to go to both stores to buy both sauces. You can use a different brand or what's accessible to you at the store where you choose to shop. 

Gently add the tofu, with the steeping water.

Very, very carefully stir the sauce and tofu to combine. Let simmer for 2-3 minutes.

Add salt to taste. Sprinkle on the green onions and ginger. Add the cornstarch slurry slowly and stir to thicken the sauce. If it looks like it's getting too thick, then don't use all the slurry. Add the ground Sichuan pepper and give it one last gentle stir. Drizzle on the sesame oil and serve.


Shopping Tips:

For a list of Asian markets, click here.

* The brand of chili sauce used in this recipe is Sze Chuan. T.F. This is pretty spicy and it's pure chilies. It can be found at 99 Ranch Market. Locations

** The brand of chili bean sauce used in this recipe is Fu Chi. You can find it at Uwajimaya. This is medium-spicy. If you're a chile head, this will be "mild" to you. If you don't want your dish to be too spicy, then skip using the spicier sauce that's listed above.

*** Buy whole Sichuan peppercorns. You can toast them in a pan over medium heat for about 2 minutes, and grind them in a coffee grinder or pound them with a mortar and pestle. If you pound them, they will be "chunky" style.

Ground Sichuan peppercorns.


Four-Flavor Green Beans

This dish was made "on-the-fly" and it achieves that ideal flavor combination of hot, sour, salty, sweet.


2 lobes of shallots, peeled and thinly sliced and separated into rings

2 teaspoons of vegetable oil

1 pound of fresh green beans (I had haricots verts, but regular green beans work just fine), trimmed, cut into 2-inch segments and blanched

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes


In the wok, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallot rings and stir fry until softened and lightly charred. Add the blanched green beans and stir fry to mix well. Add the soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar and red pepper flakes. Stir and toss until well combined. Taste a bean. If needed, add a touch more soy sauce. Serve as part of a meal with rice.


Cabbage Soup


It sounds so paltry, but some Chinese cabbage, tofu, soy bean thread (cellophane noodles), water and soy sauce can do wonders. If you have a winter tomato, as I did today, you can chop it up, saute it in the soy sauce and build a little flavor. It's perfect with or without rice.


Makes 2 Quarts

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 small tomato, any kind, roughly diced (about 1 cup)

1/4 cup soy sauce (or tamari)

2 quarts water

1 small head Chinese cabbage, cut into squares (about 4-5 cups cut)

1 block silken or soft tofu, cut into bite-size squares

1 bundle soy bean thread

Salt to taste, if needed


In a soup pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring often, until the tomatoes start to soften, about 1 minute. Add the soy sauce and continue stirring/sauteing, about 1 minute. Add the water, cabbage and tofu. Turn up heat to high and bring to a boil. Immediately turn down the heat to medium or medium-low and let the soup simmer until the cabbage has soften and the tofu heated through. Add the bean thread and let soften, about 2-3 minutes. Taste the soup and add salt to taste, if necessary. I usually have to add a pinch.

You can, at this point, add a sprinkle of white pepper and a drizzle of sesame oil, if you'd like. If you have any cilantro laying around, a few leaves as garnish in each bowl would punch up the flavor.

Serve with rice, if you'd like.



Hunger Challenge, Some Thoughts

 (*This is a belated summary of my United Way of King County Hunger Action Week experience.)

I don't know hunger. Even when my immigrant family first landed in the United States with a few possessions and what was left of my parents' life savings after the expense of transplanting a family of four, we somehow figured out how to survive. We were poor, but we were never hungry. At least my parents never let us suffer hunger.

When I agreed to take the Hunger Challenge, I knew that it was only an exercise meant to draw attention to the United Way's advocacy efforts. I think there's an important distinction here, because without being embedded in a family living in poverty, it would be nearly impossible to simulate the circumstances and mindset that inform food decisions. Sure, I can buy groceries based on a budget and cook from those ingredients. But that only shows that I can shop on a budget and cook. It doesn't show that I understand the desperation, fear and stress of a mom trying to feed her children on food stamps. Even with a budget and rules set by the United Way, I believe the only "suffering" my family experienced was having to stick to a menu.

I participated in the Hunger Challenge to show that if you know how to shop resourcefully and cook, you can feed your family not only on a budget but also using healthful and wholesome ingredients. That applies to any family. But...what if the family is homeless, what if the parent(s) work ungodly hours, what if, what if? I can't answer those questions. What I know for certain is that you will always eat more economically (and healthfully) over time if you cook. You can read the previous posts to see the descriptions of most of what we ate. Here are the stats:

Total budget for the week: $130 or $26/day for a family of 5.

Total cost of meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) over 5 days: $84.75 or $45.25 under budget for the week.

Average cost per day: $16.95 or $9.05 under budget per day.



Hunger Challenge, Day 4

Breakfast, 3/24: I made breakfast burritos for the kids with two eggs and cheddar cheese. I made some steelcut oatmeal for the grownups. My mom ate her portion plain with a fried egg on the side. My husband and I mixed a touch of brown sugar and dried cranberries in our oatmeal.

Lunch, 3/24: With about a half cup of leftover roast chicken, I made a chicken salad sandwich for my husband to take to work.

For the kids, I boiled the other half bag of pasta and mixed that with the reserved meat sauce that I had made for the lasagna on Monday. The rest of the leftover roast chicken went into a soup with some brown rice, carrots, celery, onions, parsley - and some leftover sauteed zucchini and mushrooms from last night. My mom and I had this soup for lunch.

Dinner, 3/24: There was enough of the chicken and rice soup left for dinner.

The cost of the pot of soup was $5.50. The total cost of the day: $15 ($11 under budget).