My innards hate me. I mean, why wouldn’t they when you consider how I regularly punish them by consuming foods that are particularly hot and spicy or really sour and mainly pickled? The other end of the spectrum means that because of my food habits, I do need to temper the heat within by eating something cooling (which usually means a small bowl of yoghurt every day). I don’t go out of my way and go for the hottest thing on the menu all the time, but I like a bit of heat in my food, shall we say?
That said, I’ve been sensible recently and avoided anything too spicy but I could feel the inner chilli-head working its way to the forefront of my mind, manifesting itself this time in a craving for Szechuan food – Especially as I had some really good chilli bean paste which was pretty much shouting “USE ME!” every time I looked into the cupboard. I was going to make Fish Fragrant Aubergines but then I felt compelled to make Ma Po Tofu first as it’s always been a dish I could return to time after time and yes, it was a safer option. Plus, I’ve never really been a person to turn down the chance to eat tofu.
Ma Po Tofu is loosely translated as “Pockmarked old woman’s tofu”. I’m not exactly sure of the origins of the name – Perhaps the look of the finished dish resembled the pockmarked old woman, or perhaps it’s a play on words as the word “Ma” could also reference the numbing sensation from eating the dish. Whatever the real reasoning for naming the dish as such, there’s no denying that it’s a lovely combination of minced pork or beef combined with tofu, sometimes with the addition of some vegetables, all enveloped by a fiery, salty, sometimes slightly smoky sauce. I have it in my mind as the first dish (other than curry) which really pushed my limits of how hot I could take food, and it was the first dish that made me realise that hot food could really whip your tastebuds into a frenzy and thus open your appetite. Before I ate this dish, all I knew about hot food was that I didn’t like how it made my mouth explode and it subsequently made going to the loo.. messy
Making it is very simple:
First you need some minced pork (or beef, but I’m a traditionalist so stuck with pork), some tofu (preferably the fresh stuff you can get in containers from a Chinese supermarket, but any kind of silken tofu will do), some finely chopped garlic, some chilli bean paste and finally some cornflour slaked in water to thicken later. Oh, I added some frozen peas and chopped spring onions too.
Heat some oil in a wok and add the minced meat to brown off, adding the garlic not too long behind it until the meat is brown and cooked through. Now add the chilli bean paste and mix together until well combined and the mixture begins to release its spicy aroma which tickle your nosebuds gently. At this point, add some water and bring to the boil, letting the mixture bubble away whilst you chop the tofu into cubes, I added the frozen peas at this point and let them cook through in the meat mixture as it bubbled away. After a few minutes (in my case, when the peas were cooked) the heat was lowered and the tofu cubes added to let them simmer in the meat mixture for a few minutes. From here, any additional seasoning is added and the sauce is thickened with the cornflour slaked with water. Take great care when stirring at this point as you don’t really want to break the delicate tofu cubes. However, I like the rustic look of having some broken tofu amongst the whole cubes of tofu.
There are recipes that call for light and dark soy sauce as well as black beans and shaoxing rice wine amongst its ingredients, but I like the simplicity of just some chilli bean sauce with a bit of water and seasoned to taste. When I was younger and before I discovered chilli bean paste, Szechuan preserved vegetables were used to provide the fire for the dish, there are times these days where I still add them for some crunch. If you like it fiendishly hot, then by all means add more chilli bean paste but be aware that some brands are more salty than others. You could of course, add some extra chillies to really strip the inside of your mouth off and punish your insides (I’d add them with the garlic when you first fry it off with the meat). Whatever you put into the dish, the result should be hot and full flavoured, tempered by soft creaminess of the tofu and (in this case) added crunch from the spring onions and the slight sweetness of the peas, along with a slight numbing of the mouth and the mincemeat giving the tofu the appearance of being pockmarked – Which is where I always thought the name of the dish originated from. Serve it with plain rice as a contrast and to help cool down the fiery inferno that your mouth will turn into, and perhaps have some yoghurt afterwards to please your innards a bit..