On a dark night a couple of weeks ago spent with a group of holiday-convivial writers at a local watering hole, I found myself sitting across from my friend, Marv.
Before us were plates of slightly overcooked salmon, Caesar salads, soggy fries. Talk of girl heroes with bat DNA, epic fantasy, and novels with not one, but two authors floated around us.
The storm of the moment was battering itself relentlessly against the building, rattling the windows beside us with much ferocity. Meanwhile, Marv and I hunched together, talking conspiratorially about Ma Po Tofu, a flavor bomb of a dish from Chengdu.
Ma Po Tofu is my kind of comfort food.
I'm not quite sure how we got on the topic, but Marv did time in the Chinese Studies department at the University of Chicago and has a passion for Chinese food, which has led him many times into the kitchen guided by his battered copy of Fu Pei Mei's Chinese Cookbook.
We compared notes, including Marv's disclosure that he appreciates a scattering of Sichuan peppercorns, the flavor hallmark of the dish, at the very end, whereas my preference is to make an infused oil ahead of time which I then add during cooking. Whatever our differences, the mutual consensus was a longing to devour some Ma Po Tofu at that very moment.
Some may find the idea of a tofu-and-pork dish spiked with tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and a name that translates into "pock-marked face woman" to be anything but comforting. But trust me, in the low-light (or more like pretty-much-no-light) days of December here in coastal Washington, Ma Po Tofu infuses the palate - and the winter soul - with a needed hit of heat and exuberance.
Ma Po Tofu isn't merely about spicy-hot though. It is, as in all good and sensible cooking, a dish about the balance of contrasts -- of heat and mildness, harshness and richness. Pork and chili bean paste, peppercorns and fermented black beans. Soothing tofu remains unruffled even as it is enveloped by such vividness. A toss of thinly sliced green onions provides freshness. And a final dash of additional ground peppercorns? Well. Why ever not?
If you're in need of something comforting yet vivifying, this is it. Ma Po Tofu provides an especially welcome reprieve here in a land where winter eating centers around squash and parsnips, leeks and potatoes. Indeed, during darkest December, a dish such as Ma Po Tofu does nothing but elevate the spirit.
Here is the version I learned to make from my niece Sarah, who came to visit us in September. She's a remarkable young woman who recently took a year off medical school to do research at Stanford. She's a very talented home cook, and yes, she's also a trained concert pianist (am I really related to her?). She lives in a hacker house now in the Bay Area, where she cooks for its 13 or so residents. This dish is on regular rotation there.
For good reason.
Ma Po Tofu
For Sichuan peppercorn oil*:
1/2 cup Sichuan peppercorns
3 cups neutral oil such as sunflower or canola
1 head of garlic
2-inch piece of fresh ginger
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 star anise
1/2 teaspoon of cardamom pods
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
For the dish:
2/3 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons potato starch
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon neutral oil
2 medium cloves of garlic, minced
2 teaspoons minced ginger
4 green onions white part only, minced
1 tablespoon fermented black beans (or black bean paste)
1/2 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, black seeds removed then ground (optional)
8 ounces ground pork
2 teaspoons chili bean paste (doubanjiang)
2 tablespoons homemade Sichuan peppercorn oil
14 ounce block of soft or regular tofu, drained and cut into 3/4” cubes
Green part of green onions sliced thinly on the diagonal for garnish
To make pepper-corn oil (best done ahead of time for maximum flavor):
1. Place oil in heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add garlic, ginger, cinnamon, star anise and cardamom. Simmer on low heat for an hour. The oil will become very fragrant.
2. Add Sichuan peppercorns and salt.
3. Allow to cool, pour into jars and set aside.
*You will have plenty of leftover oil. It keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator.
To make the dish:
1. Add the chicken stock, cornstarch, soy sauce and sugar to a small bowl and stir to combine.
2. Heat a wok or large frying pan until hot. Add the oil, garlic, ginger and green onions and stir-fry with a spatula until fragrant. Add the black beans and Sichuan pepper and continue stir-frying.
3. Add the ground pork and use the spatula to break it up any clumps, leaving very small pieces. When the pork is cooked, add the chili bean paste and Sichuan peppercorn oil and stir to distribute. Add the tofu, and toss to mix (be gentle or the tofu will lose its shape).
Stir stock mixture thoroughly, scraping up anything that may have settled, then pour it over the pork and tofu. Toss to coat, then boil until the sauce thickens. If the spirit moves you, scatter additional ground Sichuan peppercorn to your liking.
Garnish with the green parts of the green onions. Serve with rice.