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.
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.
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* 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.