In many parts of the world, tofu is a vastly misunderstood ingredient; maligned 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 tofu everywhere from Chinese takeout joints in Manhattan to real-deal Sichuan restaurants in Hong Kong. But the best I've ever had was at Fuloon, a Sichuan restaurant in the Boston suburb of Malden whose chef, Zhang Wenxue, is a straight-from-Sichuan export who brought his woks and his skills with him. (He also makes the best steamed beef in chili oil and Sichuan wontons anywhere.)
A traditional Sichuan dish, mapo tofu 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 a great representation of málà, or hot and numbing flavor.
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, the dish comes together remarkably fast—five minutes and you're done.
- 2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns, divided (see note)
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons cold water
- 1 1/2 pounds medium to firm silken tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1/4 pound ground beef
- 3 garlic cloves grated on a microplane grater
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger grated on a microplane grater
- 2 tablespoons fermented chili bean paste (see note)
- 2 tablespoons Xiaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 1/4 cup low-sodium chicken stock
- 1/4 cup roasted chili oil (see note)
- 1/4 cup finely sliced scallion greens
Heat half of sichuan peppercorns in a large wok over high heat until lightly smoking. Transfer to a mortar and pestle. Pound until finely ground and set aside.
Add remaining sichuan peppercorns and vegetable oil to wok. Heat over medium high heat until lightly sizzling, about 1 1/2 minutes. Pick up peppercorns with a wire mesh skimmer and discard, leaving oil in pan.
Combine corn starch and cold water in a small bowl and mix with a fork until homogenous. Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil over high heat and add tofu. Cook for 1 minute. Drain in a colander, being careful not to break up the tofu.
Heat oil in wok over high heat until smoking. Add beef and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Add garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add chili-bean paste, wine, soy sauce, and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Pour in corn starch mixture and cook for 30 seconds until thickened. Add tofu and carefully fold in, being careful not to break it up too much. Stir in chili oil and half of scallions and simmer for 30 seconds longer. Transfer immediately to a serving bowl and sprinkle with remaining scallions and toasted ground Sichuan pepper. Serve immediately with white rice.
Both the chili bean paste and the Sichuan Peppercorns can be bought online (follow the links) if you don't have a good Chinese market nearby. Use tofu labeled "silken" in a hardness range of medium to firm. Don't try this with the super-soft stuff or it'll fall apart!
You can use store-bought roasted chili oil, or make your own by toasting a cup of whole hot dried Chinese peppers in a wok until lightly charred, then adding 1 1/2 cups of vegetable or canola oil. Heat the oil until the chilis start to bubble slightly, then allow to cool and transfer to a sealable container. Chili oil will stay good in the refrigerator for several months.