Spicy Szechuan Tofu (Ma Po Tofu)

Tony writes: I have a rule: any time I start ordering a restaurant dish more than once a week or find myself longing for said dish over 3 times/day (in weird but socially acceptable ways, of course), it’s time to learn to make the damn thing myself. Such is my lot with ma po tofu, the spicy Szechuan stir-fry of tofu, chiles, and ground pork. Through the years, ma po tofu has undergone various mutations in the Chinese-American canon. Strangely, I almost always like it, no matter the restaurant. And, as I learned this past week, I like my own ma po tofu: the dish’s basic building blocks (and simple technique) make it easy enough to create your own version; and put down that take-out menu… at least for now.

The technique: This stir-fry consists of 3 basic cooking steps: brown some ground pork, make a quick sauce, and then cook altogether with the tofu and pork. Though the tremendous high heat of a restaurant-grade range certainly wouldn’t hurt, ma po tofu doesn’t demand an intense stir-fry. Rather, the keys to the preparation are its spicy broth/sauce and a healthy dose of chiles. For the sauce, try to track down some double black soy sauce at the Asian grocer. It gives the sauce a rich hue (and depth of flavor), while a double hit of vinegar – white and balsamic – impart the requisite tang. The balsamic might sound strange, but closely replicates the sharp sweetness of Chinese black vinegar. Below, I offer thoughts on the chiles (and heat) in this dish. Szechuan peppercorns, an exotic version of regular peppercorns, are great if you have them, but I decided to omit them. Same for frozen peas, which add color but little more. Look for “soft” tofu at the market (as opposed to “firm” or “extra-firm”) and well-marbled (ie: fatty) ground pork, which won’t dry out in this quick braise.

Double the chiles: In authentic Szechuan restaurants, you will find a pool of reddish chili oil atop the stir-fried tofu. Rather than pick up one of those insipid bottles of chili oil, I made my own, gently browning a couple cloves of garlic and 4 or 5 dried chiles (I used generic red chiles from the Asian market, but any dried chile will do) until the garlic started to brown and the chiles sizzled steadily. I remove the oil from the heat and stirred in some pimenton de la Vera (smoked Spanish paprika) for a little color. I employed this garlic-chile oil for drizzling over the finished dish, but doubled up the heat by starting the stir-fry with fresh Thai chiles. The mix of fresh and dried chiles offers some nuance to the dish’s spiciness; the pleasant burn kinda comes at you from different angles.

The recipe (Serves 4)

1. Make the chili oil: Add 1/2 cup peanut oil (or canola oil), 4 or 5 dried chiles, and 3 smashed garlic cloves to a small pot set over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic sizzles steadily and starts to brown lightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in 1/2 tsp. pimenton de la Vera (or chipotle powder), and let cool to room temperature. Discard the garlic cloves.


2. Make the sauce:  In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup chicken broth (or water), 2 Tbs. white vinegar, 1 Tbs. oyster sauce, 1 Tbs. sesame oil,  1 Tbs. double black soy sauce, 1 Tbs. soy sauce, 2 tsp. sriracha, and 1 tsp. balsamic vinegar and reserve.


3. Brown the pork: Heat 1 1/2 Tbs. peanut oil (or canola oil) in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat until it’s shimmering hot, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add 3/4 lb. ground pork spread in an even layer, sprinkle with 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, and cook, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until the meat loses most all its raw color, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a large plate.


4. Finish the stir-fy: Add another 1 Tbs. peanut oil, 1 garlic clove (minced) and 3 or 4 Thai chiles (or 1 jalapeno, thinly sliced). Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until the garlic starts to sizzle steadily, 30 seconds. Add the reserved sauce and bring to a boil. Return the reserved pork to the pan as well as one 18-oz pack “soft” tofu (drained well and cut in 1-inch cubes). Cook, stirring, until the pork cooks through and the tofu warms, about 2 minutes. In a small bowl, stir 1 Tbs. corn starch with 2 Tbs. water so that it’s uniform and milky (with no lumps). Stirring the stir-fry, gently pour in this corn starch mixture. Return to a simmer so the sauce thickens. Stir well and then drizzle with the chile oil and sprinkle with thinly sliced scallions. Serve with steamed rice and crisp vegetables.


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