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In many parts of the world, tofu is a vastly misunderstood ingredient; maligned as vegetarian food, or worse, as a pale meat imitation, it's no wonder so many people turn their noses up at it.
Well, I'm here to set the record straight: tofu is emphatically not a meat substitute. It's an ingredient in its own right, and a delicious one at that! Indeed, in many traditional Chinese and Japanese dishes, it's prepared together with meat in a single dish. I grew up on the sweet-and-salty, heavy-on-the-beef version of Mapo Tofu that my mom used to make for us, sometimes with her own seasoning, but often just thrown together from a packet. When paired with her handmade beef dumplings, it was far and away my favorite meal.
Since then, I've had mapo dofu everywhere from Chinese takeout joints in Manhattan to real-deal Sichuanese restaurants in Hong Kong. But the best I've ever had it is from Fuloon, a Sichuanese restaurant in the Boston suburb of Malden. Glancing at their takeout menu, which has such Chinese-American staples as General Gau's and Egg Rolls, you wouldn't expect to find hardcore Sichuanese food inside, but their chef, Zhang Wenxue, is a straight-from-Sichuan export who brought his woks and his skills with him. He makes the best steamed beef in chili oil and Sichuan wontons anywhere.
A traditional Sichuanese dish, Mapo Dofu is made with simmered medium-firm silken tofu flavored with fermented bean paste, beef, plenty of red-hot roasted chili oil, and a handful of Sichuan peppercorns. When done right, the dish comes out with a thick coating of hot chili oil covering its surface, keeping the contents underneath hot in both senses of the word. It's the epitome of the Sichuan flavor known as Ma-La, or numb-hot. The Sichuan peppercorns provide their characteristic mouth-numbing citrus aroma while the hot chili oil cuts through with its intense spiciness.
Chef Zhang says the secret is all about layering flavors. He starts by infusing his cooking oil with Sichuan peppercorns and finishes the dish by sprinkling more of the toasted and ground peppercorns on top. The result is intense, soul-satisfying fare.
It's dangerously addictive stuff. Just as your mouth seems about to spontaneously combust from the chili heat, the Sichuan peppers kick in, numbing it back to soothing calmness so you can take another bite and start the whole process over again. I go through bowls of it like a fiend.
I took a trip inside the kitchen with Chef Zhang to see exactly how he does it. Once you get the basic hang of wok-cooking and pick up a couple of the more hard-to-track ingredients, the dish comes together remarkably fast—5 minutes and you're done.