Vegetarian: Mapo Tofu with Peas

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[Photograph: Lauren Rothman]

"Pock-Marked Mother's Bean Curd," the translation of the name mapo tofu, gives a good indication of the homey, comforting nature of this dish, which tastes just like something Mom would make, if Mom were Chinese and an excellent cook. It hails from the region of Sichuan, an area that's known all over China for the quality of its cuisine, which makes prodigious use of Sichuan peppercorns and hot red chiles. The peppercorns have a floral taste and a tingly, slightly numbing effect on the tongue, and coupled with the spicy peppers they make an irresistible cool/hot combination that's called ma la, or numb-hot, in Chinese.

Mapo tofu is essentially a quick-cooking stew in which cubes of silky tofu are simmered in a smooth, complex-tasting sauce made with dark soy sauce, cooking wine, some form of chiles, and, of course, those fragrant peppercorns, then garnished with sliced green onions and served over hot, sticky white rice. The dish is traditionally made with ground or shredded pork or beef (see Kenji's exemplary version here), and the bean curd and meat make a wonderful match, but at home, I usually leave out the meat and find the result to be just as satisfying. The soft, almost milky-tasting chunks of tofu practically melt into the rich, fiery sauce, and I like to include green peas that provide a pop of freshness and texture in every bite.

A few notes about the recipe: traditional mapo tofu recipes call for simmering the bean curd in water and then draining it before stirring it into the sauce. I tested the recipe both with this step and without it and found that there was absolutely no discernible difference in taste or texture between the two versions, so I skip that step. An added benefit to this variation is that it's much easier to keep the cubes of tofu intact. Additionally, the source of red chiles in my dish is sambal oelek, a garlic-red chile sauce which isn't Chinese at all but which lends freshness, spiciness and color to the finished dish.

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