But recently some friends and I ordered Chinese food from a good place, and I tasted a fiery dish with silky, delicate chunks of tofu utterly infused with the flavor of pork, ginger, and peppercorns. I was hooked - what was this? It was ma po tofu (or mapo doufu) - a classic Szechuan dish known for its tingling ma la heat.
Every household and restaurant will have a slightly different take on this dish. I have only just begun to experiment with it, so this is a pretty basic recipe. It does include, though, some authentic notes that may be left out of Americanized recipes. The chili bean paste and the fermented black beans give a lot of depth and umami to this dish, and they're worth tracking down.
Ma Po Tofu
1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
1 block soft (not silken) tofu
4 inch piece of fresh ginger
6 large cloves of garlic
Vegetable or peanut oil
1/2 pound ground pork
2 tablespoons Sichuan chili bean paste (found in glass jars at the Asian grocery)
2 teaspoons fermented black beans (found in plastic bags at the Asian grocery)
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 cup water
Green onions, to garnish
Toast the peppercorns in a heavy pan over medium heat, shaking the pan until they smell fragrant. Grind to a fine powder and set aside. Cut the tofu into 1-inch cubes and set aside.
Mince the ginger and garlic. Heat some oil in a large, heavy saucepan or a wok over medium heat, and add the ginger and garlic, stirring for about a minute. Add the pork and cook until cooked through. Add the chili bean paste and the fermented black beans and stir.
Add the broth and water and bring to a boil, then turn down the heat. Carefully add the tofu, stirring it gently so the cubes don't break up too much. Add the ground peppercorns and soy sauce to taste, and cook over low until the tofu is warmed through. Garnish with sliced green onions and serve with rice.