Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mapo Tofu

When I mention Chinese food, most of my friends automatically think of spring rolls, wonton soup, honey garlic ribs and the oh-so-coveted chicken balls, smothered in the bright red, almost gelatinous sweet and sour sauce (which, might I add, is so not Chinese food!). But much like France, Italy and even America, where cuisine is divided up by the different regions, China has eight main regional cuisines, also known as the Eight Great Traditions. The most common and perhaps the most popular of the eight amongst North American palates is Cantonese cuisine, which is often milder in taste compared to the others.

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A few of the Eight Great Traditions do feature lots of spices and chilies, like Hunan or Sichuan (or more commonly known as Szechuan here in N.A.) cuisines. These two are known for its liberal use of the hot stuff, often serving up dishes that are bright red from the chilies used. While I'm not the biggest fan of Sichuan cuisine, mostly because it is far too spicy for me, I do love their Mapo Tofu: soft, silky bean curd, ground meat (typically pork or beef), simmered together in a deliciously fragrant hot bean paste sauce. Because the dish is so overpowering in flavour and spiciness (taking on the "mala" characteristic, which roughly translates into "numbing spiciness" (in that it is so spicy it'll numb your whole mouth), it is best enjoyed with a simple bowl of steamed white rice.

I must admit, my version is a bit of a cheater's version to the traditional Mapo Tofu. Traditional recipes call for spicy dou ban jiang, a spicy and salty paste made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, red chili peppers and spices. However, I don't have any dou ban jiang in my pantry, and I didn't bother picking up any from the Asian grocers since I knew I wouldn't use it all the time. A trick my mother taught me was to substitute miso for the dou ban jiang, which is similar in taste (miso is typically fermented soybeans). The only thing to remember is that if you use miso, you'll also need to add chili sauce to give the dish it's signature spicy kick!

This is a really easy dish to throw together, and a great way to use up a block of tofu that’s sitting in your fridge. Be sure to use silken tofu; it's the best tofu to use for mapo tofu because it has such a soft, silky texture that'll melt in your mouth, and it really helps offset some of that heat. You can add other vegetables if you so desire, like water chestnuts for a bit of contrast in texture. I happened to have a baby eggplant lying around in my fridge, so I threw that in, and it makes for such a great combination with the spicy sauce and silky tofu. The choice of meat is also flexible; for something leaner, I chose chicken, but you can also do turkey, beef or the more traditional pork. Basically, have fun with this recipe! Once you've got the logistics of it, you can make your own changes to make it your own signature dish.

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Mapo Tofu
Serves 4 if part of a multi-course meal; 2 to 3 as main dish

1 package silken tofu (about 450 g)
6 ounces ground chicken (or meat of your choice)
1 tsp Chinese cooking wine (rice wine)
1 tsp light soy sauce
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of black pepper
1 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, minced **
2 spring onions, sliced 1-inch long on the diagonal
2 tbsp miso
1 tbsp chili sauce, or to taste
1 to 2 tsp sugar
1/2 cup reduced-sodium chicken stock
1 to 2 tbsp cornstarch solution

Gently remove the beancurd from its package and wrap in a clean tea towel. Place on a plate, and using heavy plates or a heavy wooden chopping block, place on top of the tofu for about half an hour. This process will press out some of the water in the tofu, as silken tofu has the highest content of water. (If you want, you can skip this step.) Once drained, cut tofu into 1-inch cubes and set aside.

Meanwhile, marinate the ground chicken with 1 tsp light soy sauce, 1 tsp of cooking wine, a pinch each of sugar and pepper, 1 tsp cornstarch, 1 tbsp water and 1 tsp sesame oil. Mix until combined, and leave for 30 minutes.

In a separate, small bowl, stir together the miso, chili sauce and 1 to 2 tsp sugar. Adjust the amount of chili sauce and sugar according to your own tastes. (I like to add a bit of water or stock at this point to loosen up the sauce a bit. This is up to you, as you can always add a bit more stock later on in the cooking process.)

Heat oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Add the ground chicken and stir-fry until it is just about cooked through. Reduce the heat to medium, add the minced garlic and sliced spring onions and stir-fry until fragrant. Add the miso-chili sauce mixture and stir-fry for about 1 minute.

Pour in the stock and stir well. Mix in the drained tofu and gently push the ingredients in the wok back and forth to prevent the tofu from breaking apart. Adjust seasonings, if desired. Simmer for about 5 minutes. Add in the cornstarch mixture in slowly, allowing the sauce to come to a boil so that it can thicken (don't add more than you need, or the sauce will be too thick!). Garnish with sliced spring onions, if desired, and serve immediately with steamed rice white.

** A great trick I use to avoid having my hands smell like garlic for days is to use a fine grater to grate my garlic right into the wok, rather than having to mince the garlic by hand. It's much faster, and your fingers will thank you!


Nate @ House of Annie December 8, 2008 at 12:34 p.m.  

The numbing sensation is not only caused by the chillies but also the Sichuan peppercorns. These berries used to be banned from the US but nowadays you can find them in the Asian groceries.

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