麻婆豆腐 má pó dòu fǔ
Our friend Li Tian (李恬) is from Chengdu, the home of mapo tofu, and he’s eaten at the restaurant where pock-marked grandma (麻 is for a skin disfigurement, 婆婆 is grandma in the sense of an affectionate term for an elderly lady) invented and sold the dish a few decades ago. He gave us the following recipe, but note it’s a simplified version. He said that once I’ve mastered this one, he’ll give me the authentic, complex one. And if I manage to master that, I can officially call myself Sichuanese. So here it is:
- ‘Old’ tofu, about RMB2 worth 2块钱的老豆腐, these are the big blocks of white tofu but whereas the usual stuff is white, smooth and watery the ‘old’ tofu is dry, leathery, and more of a creamy, yellow-white colour.
- Garlic, 3 cloves 大蒜，三瓣
- Spring onion (aka scallion), one 青葱（别名大葱），一根（叶子切成“葱花”）
- Thick chili bean sauce, 1 tbsp 豆瓣醬 dòu bàn jiàng, a rich, thick, salty, dark red chili sauce)，一汤匙
- White granulated sugar, 1 tbsp 白砂糖，一汤匙
- Dark soy sauce, 1/2 tbsp 老抽，半汤匙 Soy sauce is divided into two main kinds (with numerous sub divisions), 生抽 is light soy sauce, slightly lighter red brown colour but very salty, used to add flavour, and dark soy sauce 老抽, much less salty but used to add colour (a deep, rich, brown).
- starch, a pinch 小粉（芡粉 qiàn fěn），一撮 cuō, 小粉 is a colloquial name for starch (淀粉 diàn fěn) and can refer to various kinds of white powdered starch, I don’t think it matters which you use as they all function the same. 小粉 most commonly refers to 绿豆淀粉 (mung bean starch powder) or 玉米淀粉 (cornstarch).
- Sichuan pepper powder, 1/2 tbsp 花椒粉，半汤匙
- Cut the tofu into 1.5cm cubes. Put in a bowl and sprinkle with salt (a pinch will do) and soak in cold water for ten minutes to remove the heavy tofu flavour.
- Finely chop the garlic, do not use a garlic press (aka garlic crusher, garlic mincer).
- Finely chop the spring onion leaves into little green rings (“葱花”).
- Heat oil in a wok, when the oil is ‘smoking’ turn down the heat and quick-fry (爆) the garlic until it gives off the garlic aroma, then add a tablespoon of thick, chili bean sauce. Continue to quick-fry (must be on a low heat) until you can smell the rich aroma of the sauce, then add a tablespoon of sugar.
- Add the tofu by putting it on the back of a spatula and sliding it into the wok, this will prevent the cubes from crumbling. Add 1/2 tablespoon of dark soy sauce.
- Once the tofu has taken on the colour of the sauce (a rich brown), add enough cold water to cover the tofu. In the Chengdu dialect this is called ‘du’ tofu, referring to the sound the simmering water makes (the ‘du du du’ of bubbling boiling water).
- While the tofu is simmering make the cornstarch glaze. In a small bowl put a little cold water and a little cornstarch and mix with the finger until dissolved. This is known in Chengdu as a ‘glaze’ as the cornstarch envelops the tofu in a transparent layer of sauce like glass.
- When the water in the wok has boiled down so that a thick sauce is left, mix the cornstarch paste again (because if left for a while it will separate out again with the powder on the bottom and the water on top), turn off the heat and add the cornstarch paste. Mix gently (so as not to break the tofu cubes) but thoroughly with the back of a spatula, the sauce should stick to the tofu.
- Serve in a bowl. Sprinkle a layer of Sichuan pepper (1/2 tablespoon) and chopped spring onion leaves over the top and you’re good to go.
- du豆腐的期间起芡勾玻璃芡（玻璃芡的意思是给菜包裹一层透明的像玻璃一样的芡粉汁） 勾芡大概小碗一点点冷水，加入小粉（芡粉），用指尖搅匀。
So when I was starting out, I found this recipe online, and it’s terrible, it makes for a brown mess that is so salty (with chili bean sauce, soy sauce, AND salt) you’ll go cross-eyed.
Tofu (the white blocks of wet tofu) 400g
Minced beef 50g
Garlic shoots (青蒜末 or 蒜苗, the young shoots of garlic used for the leaves, I guess the garlic bulbs are still too small), chopped (about 1/2cm lengths), 30g
Sichuan pepper (花椒面, powdered Sichuan peppercorns), 1g
Coriander (cilantro) leaves, chopped (香菜), 5g
Soy sauce, 15g
Thick chili bean sauce (豆瓣醬, a rich, thick, salty, dark red chili sauce), 30g
Black beans (豆豉, actually fermented soybeans, you’ll usually see it as ‘black bean sauce’ but this recipe calls for the individual beans), 20g
Chicken stock (powdered), (鸡粉，like Western chicken stock except it also has white pepper and powdered ginger), 2g
Yellow rice wine (黄酒, a low-alcohol (less than 20%) rice wine, very sweet, often used in cooking), 10g
Garlic, crushed (大蒜末), 20g
Pork broth (肉汤), 300ml
Liquid starch (水淀粉, this is just powdered starch with a little bit of water, used as a thickening agent in sauces), to taste
Peanut oil, 30g
- Cut the tofu into 2cm cubes.
- Fill a saucepan with water, add a pinch of salt, and soak the tofu for 15 minutes (why? I don’t know).
- Take the tofu out, and put it to one side.
- Fry the mince beef in peanut oil.
- Once the mince had turned colour (pink to grey) add the following in succession – each time the smell of the new ingredient wafts up, it’s time to add the next one on the list. So, in order: thick chili sauce (豆瓣酱), black beans, crushed garlic, yellow rice wine, stir-frying all the while.
- Then add in the pork broth and soy sauce. Add salt to taste.
- Now, finally, add the tofu. Let it simmer in the sauce for 3-5 minutes.
- Just at the end add the chicken stock for a bit of flavour and the starch to thicken (there’s a special verb for ‘to thicken with corn starch, 勾芡). Stir, or rather gently turn, the sauce and tofu with a spatula to stop the tofu sticking to the pan and to make sure the starch is thoroughly mixed in.
- Pour into the serving dish and sprinkle with Sichuan pepper, and lastly the chopped garlic shoots and coriander.