It is really amusing to observe a toddler’s reaction when eating a piece of tofu (soybean curd) for the first time.
His face changed and grimaced. “Yuck!” I remembered that was what my older son said when he first tasted tofu. He was 3 years old then. His younger brother said exactly the same thing at his age. Even worst. He spewed everything out, with a contorted face.
Okay, maybe they were the wrong audience to feed those white spongy, tasteless thingy, BUT… kids don’t lie. Remember? 😉
Masking the Curd
I must admit soybean curd on its own is downright bland. That’s why my Mum made us “like” eating tofu by masking and dressing it up when we were younger. She won, because we absolutely loved and still adore Mum’s stuffed fried tofu “tauhu sumbat” with either meat or veg filling. I’d love to replicate Mum’s tauhu sumbat here in Belgium, but deep fat frying of the curd is not what I would venture into in my own kitchen … as yet. I’m sure my boys will be bowled over by the stuffed tofu. Yes, 100% !
On the other hand, I’ve whipped up a much healthier version of steaming the tofu and made a glossy gravy of sesame oil, oyster sauce, garlic, ginger, cooking wine, salt and pepper to taste and corn flour as thickener to go with the once-upon-a-time bland tofu.
Or simply a bowl of clean healthy soup with cubed tofu and meatballs. And by the way, I made those tofu from scratch! You can check out how I made the soymilk the ‘traditional’ way (no soymilk maker then) and transformed the milk into soybean curd by using s secret ingredient here.
My boys have grown into teens now and their palates and cravings have also evolved over the years. They want more spices and flavour in the foods they eat. I’m glad for them because I’m a spicy person when it comes to eating, hence, it makes cooking a lot easier for me 😀
The best ‘mask’ yet for a tofu dish is the unbeatable Mapo Tofu dish. I have had these in many Chinese restaurants, and I have always loved the smooth tofu and the heat that comes with it, however, the “heat” is not as spicy as I would love it to be.
So I decided to make my own fiery Mapo Tofu.
Here you go!
Who or What the hell is Mapo?
Mapo tofu bluntly means ‘pockmarked elderly lady’s soybean curd’. It doesn’t sound very flattering, but the origin of the story dated back to the late 19th Century in Chengdu, the Provincial Capital of Sichuan in SW China. There may be little variations to the details of the story being told, but here’s one I learnt from a Chinese lady who used to run a mini Asian store near where we lived. I told her I wanted to make an authentic platter of mapo tofu dish and I wanted to know of the special ingredients that went in the dish. She was very helpful and immediately told me that the Pi’xian doubanjiang is one of the compulsory ingredients in the dish. I bought a bag of the spicy Sichuan Pixian fermented broad bean paste.
Then her eyes twinkled and she asked me if I knew why the dish is called Mapo Tofu. I love listening to stories and I was looking forward to her story 😀
Here’s what she told me, “Once a upon a time there was an elderly woman by the name of Mrs Chen. She is said to have pockmarks on her face. She ran an eatery, mainly selling vegetarian dishes, on a route travelled by porters who were carrying heavy loads. Many stopped at her stall for her food. One day, a hungry labourer who had no money to pay for his meal, stopped by at Mrs Chen’s food stall. He barter-traded with Mrs Chen his rapeseed oil (similar to canola oil) and some meat in exchange for lunch. She created and tossed what were available, and topped the tofu-minced meat with infused chilli oil, and THAT was when the Mapo Tofu was born”, as in “Ma” meaning pockmarks and “Po“, which is the first syllable of “popo” meaning an elderly woman or a grandma.
What an interesting story!
Hot and Fiery and 7th Heaven!
According to Wikipedia, a true Mapo Tofu dish is powerfully spicy with both conventional “heat” spiciness and the characteristic “mala” (numbing spiciness) flavour of Sichuan cuisine. The characteristics considered to be the most defining of authentic Mapo Tofu dish must include the following seven specific adjectives:
1. numbing (from the Sichuan peppercorns)
2. spicy hot (from the dried chillies, chilli oil, chilli flakes, doubanjiang)
3. hot temperature (cooked on high heat)
4. fresh (from the fresh ingredients used – meat, spring onions, tofu, garlic, ginger)
5. tender and soft (from the tofu)
6. aromatic (from the stir-fried aromas of the spices)
7. flaky (melts in the mouth)
As a bonus, I got this recipe from the friendly Chinese lady at the store. She only mentioned the ingredients used but not the measurements. Most unfortunately, she no longer works at the store and I have no clue where she is now, but I am very grateful for the recipe she had briefly shared with me.
Dried chillies (I used 4, cut in halves. Not for the faint-hearted. Be warned!)
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
Medium-firm soybean curd, cubed (I used 500 g)
Vegetable oil (again pure guestimate)
Minced meat (The choice of meat is yours. I used a mixture of pork-beef mince)
Fermented chilli broad bean paste (Sichuan Pixian doubanjiang) – I used 2 Tbsp
3 garlic cloves, finely diced (this one she mentioned)
Small knob fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced (“agak-agak”)
3 stalks spring onions, cut on the bias (yes, 3…)
Chilli-sesame oil (I used 2 Tbsp)
Chilli flakes (optional – depending on how hot you can take it!)
Salt and sugar (optional)
Cornflour Mixture –
Chicken stock or water (this is pure guestimate!)
Light soy sauce
Chinese cooking wine (I used Shaoxing wine)
Note: For Vegetarian version, replace minced meat with water chestnuts, wood ear fungus or any vegetables of your choice.
1. Dry roast/ toast the dry chillies and Sichuan peppercorns in a wok over a medium-high heat stirring continuously for a few seconds. Thereafter, I set aside 2 halves of the toasted dry chillies and transfer the rest to a pestle and mortar and grind finely. Let cool.
2. Prepare the cornflour mixture in a bowl by adding wine, light soy sauce and stock or water.
3. In a pan of water add the cubed soybean curd. Cover and bring to the boil. Drain. Set aside.
4. Add some oil in the wok over medium heat. Add 1 Tbsp of the ground toasted chilli and Sichuan peppercorns. Cook for a few seconds, stirring well up to the point where you see a thin wisp of smoke. Remove the peppercorns while retaining the oil in a small bowl.
5. In the same wok, add the minced meat. Stir fry for a couple of seconds over a medium- high heat.
6. Add the diced/ minced garlic and ginger. Continue stir-frying until fragrant.
7. Add the doubanjiang paste and the 2 halves of the toasted dry chillies. Stir-fry.
8. Pour in the cornflour mixture. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly.
9. Add the cubed tofu, prepared chilli oil and chilli-sesame oil. At this stage, taste to check if salt or sugar is required. Bring to the boil and then immediately turn off the heat. Transfer to a serving plate
10. Finally, sprinkle the toasted ground peppercorns and garnish with spring onions.
Here’s my version of the famous Sichuan Mapo Tofu made by a Malaysian in Belgium 😀
Mapo Tofu is a very light yet tasty dish with the level of heat that can easily be adjusted to one’s preference. I’m linking this post to Bangers & Mash’s The Spice Trail with the theme “Temple Food”
With my chosen herb in this recipe, I am submitting this post to Lavender and Lovage’s Cooking with Herbs
Mapo Tofu can be eaten anytime of the year. I don’t mind having this dish served at Chinese New Year lunch or dinner. For this, I’m submitting this post to “My Treasured Recipes #5 – Chinese New Year Goodies (Jan/Feb 2015)” hosted by Miss B of Everybody Eats Well in Flanders and co-hosted by Charmaine of Mimi Bakery House
Have a great weekend!