Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ma Po-ish Tofu

A long time ago, I moved from Washington, DC to San Francisco.  I was the first of 3 college friends to move into an apartment on the outskirts of the city (Outer Sunset, for those of you familiar with the city).  I was sleeping on a mattress and playing a lot of music to keep myself company while I waited for various bits of furniture to trickle in, along with my roommates.

Ack I just realized that this was 2000. More than 10 years ago. Where has the time gone.

Anyway, besides playing music on a JVC stereo, I read a copious number of issues of Gourmet magazine (now, sadly, defunct). I was beyond mesmerized with an article written by a woman who traveled to China and wrote about her eating adventures, including downing live scorpions. But the real draw of this issue in particular was a recipe for ma po tofu, a dish that I enjoyed many a time growing up.  Although I had always enjoyed it as takeout, and was BLOWN AWAY by the fact that I could make it at home.  

I'm not sure what I did wrong, but the dish never turned out exactly quite savory enough, so I left the recipe by the wayside.  I didn't have the dish for many years, and when I did it was from places that did a sorry job of it.  That's how 10 years flew by.

But then a few weeks ago a Szechuan restaurant opened up nearby, and I ordered the ma po tofu.  And my love was reborn.  I have a very sentimental and emotional attachment to this dish.  I remember the excitement of my dad bringing home containers of takeout from our favorite Chinese restaurant, eagerly awaiting what I now consider the gold standard for ma po tofu.  And now I remember it as the first dish I made in my new apartment in San Francisco, when I was alone and figuring out how to flex my adulthood and identity in a new life.

I found a different recipe to use this time (I decided to evolve)--all the reviews said it was very salty, so I cut down on the amount of salty ingredients. Even so, I could have cut down by another TBS or so.  Also, since we're trying to go light on meat, I went quasi-vegetarian.  If you want to see the version with meat, just click on the link.

Adapted from Epicurious and Shirley Cheng
  • 1 TBS Sichuan peppercorns (use regular black peppercorns if you can't find Sichuan)
  • Two 14-oz packages of soft tofu, cute into 1-inch cubes (the original recipe called for 1 1/2 lb tofu, but since I wasn't using meat and the tofu packages in my grocery store don't come in 1 1/2 increments, I used two 14-oz packages)
  • 2 TBS Chinese black-bean paste or sauce (the original recipe calls for a combo of black bean paste and hot bean paste, the latter of which I do not have) (you could go lighter than 2 TBS)
  • 2 TBS oyster sauce (or a bit more black bean paste with a pinch of sugar if you want to be veggie)
  • 2 tablespoons Asian chili powder (I used Korean chili flakes, which is not too hot and kind of sweet--you could use red pepper flakes or cayenne, but use very little, like a tsp or so)
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 3 TBS water
  • 1/4 cup peanut oil
  • 1 tsp ginger, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 scallions (white and green parts), thinly sliced on diagonal
  • 1/4 cup Shaohsing rice wine (I didn't have this, so I used medium dry Sherry)
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce 
Serves about 6. 

It's a long list of ingredients, but it's more simple than it looks. The actual cooking part goes pretty fast, so the name of the game is to prep all your ingredients beforehand.

Place the Sichuan peppercorns in a small skillet or sauce pan and toast over low heat until fragrant--about 2-3 minutes.  Place in spice/coffee grinder and whir away.

Smells so deelishous.

Dice your tofu. (okay, well, actually there was this whole step about placing the tofu into boiling water, turning off the heat, and letting it sit for 5 minutes before draining and patting dry with paper towels, but I'm realizing that this recipe is actually a bit complicated so if you want to skip it I won't tell.)


Mix the black bean paste, oyster sauce, and chili powder in a small bowl.

Savory and spicy. Behold.

In a small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and water. I did take a picture, but it was the world's most boring picture, so I'm leaving it out.

Mince your ginger and garlic, and place in a bowl with half of the thinly sliced scallions (the other half will be added later).

Heat the oil in a large skillet or saute pan over moderate heat.  Place in the ginger-garlic-scallion mixture and saute for about 1 minute.  Add the sherry/Madeira and cook until most of the liquid evaporates, about 2 minutes.

Madeira.  How Chinese!

This mixture gave off the most wonderful scent ever.

Put the bean paste sauce into the pan, and cook for about 2 minutes.

Pour in the broth, soy sauce, and the remaining scallions.

Add the tofu. Bring to a boil.  Rewhisk the cornstarch mixture and add into the pan, cooking until juices thicken, about 1 minute.



Stir in peppercorn powder.  Serve over rice.  I also lightly braised some celery in a bit of chicken broth (5-7 minutes), and added a few tsp of soy sauce and a pinch of five spice powder.

Apparently it was midnight and very dark by the time I ate this.



  1. Looks great! I am always trying to think of new ways to dress up tofu. Perhaps Kalyustan's might have Szechuan peppercorns and some of the other stuff?

  2. Oh. My. God. I looooove Ma Po Tofu. Love love love. I've resorted to eating the packaged, almost instant kind, which is all I've been able to find. Many of these ingredients may be hard to find in my current location of Tucson, but I will try, dammit! This looks delish!!! Thank you for posting!!

  3. the fairway nearby had szechuan peppercorns, and it might have had the hot bean paste but i didn't bother looking since i had the black bean paste. so some of it may be available in your local grocery store. i feel like kalyustan's has everything, but i don't know how much east asian stuff they have. if that doesn't work, you can also get it online or from chinatown!

  4. meeeemmmmmorrriessssss.... all alone with my memories..... that looks even better than the original version.

    and what up with the limited bio on the celery? those look just delicious.

  5. btw, penzeys online has szechuan peppercorns for less than $3 a jar.


  6. First of all, what the what?! Live scorpions? Dee-scust-ing, lol

    Second of all, you may have just converted me. I've never tasted a tofu I like but this looks AMAZING. I'm coming over.

  7. Oooh I love saucy tofu. I'm going to add this on my To Do list.

  8. Can you please send me some? That looks so yummy!! Maybe I should make another trip to NY just for this. What do you think? :)

  9. I am with @sashacleo, why so brief on the celery? Oh yeah, it was about midnight ;) Looks super delish, as always!!!

  10. jennifer: i hope you can find the spices! as sashacleo mentioned, you can order spices online through penzey's, and i'm sure you can find the other ingredients online as well.
    sashacleo and hershys: i know, i totally skimped on the celery recipe. i'll do a better job next time i make it!
    jessica: it's yummy and totally worth it!
    lobster: i almost feel like making it again this weekend, i liked it so much.
    kelsey: you're *always* more than welcome in nyc!

  11. I was just looking for a new tofu recipe and this might be it. Thanks!