Saturday, July 2, 2011

Will's Master Mapo

麻婆豆腐 Mapo Doufu/Tofu is one of those very popular dishes of which countless variations exist and continue to be created. But I'll just get it out there first: my version is not your "authentic" Sichuanese mapo tofu. In fact, I just learned from my new copy of David Chang's Lucky Peach magazine [the awesome so far! I'm slowly working through it while simultaneously slowly reading another book, etc. etc.] that the Chinese government has specified one state-sanctioned recipe for mapo tofu. Right...

To me, the snobbery about "authenticity" in cuisines is just wrong-headed--though I understand the frustration when a restaurant claims it makes Chinese food, for example, but it tastes nothing like what your Chinese family/friends make for dinner. However, everyone makes their dishes differently, down to the individual, even if they're from the same country, in the same city, in the same neighborhood, in the same house, in the same family. Furthermore, food isn't static, and as people interact with each other and come upon new methods and ingredients, their cooking changes as well. Hell, the first time someone ever made "mapo tofu", it almost certainly wasn't as good as subsequent iterations and what the dish evolved to be. But the "original" form would have been "authentic", right? And then there's the arbitrary definition of what the original form was. On the other hand, you can probably speak more in terms of gradations, generalities and trends. The food associated with Sichuan is clearly very different from that of, say, Italy.

It was great to read Todd Kliman's professional thoughts, and amusing to see his hand-wringing as he faced a redefinition of values around "authenticity". He's of course much more knowledgeable than I, and his article has an illuminating passage speaking about how kimchi is fusion, and Korean food would not be what it is were it not for the introduction of peppers from China. Furthermore Chinese Sichuanese cuisine is only some three hundred years old, and peppers came to China from the New World...

Anyway, back to my little version of mapo tofu [which tasters have told me is very good (thanks!)], which is less spicy and more nuanced in flavor than what is traditional for the Sichuanese version [roommate said it]. I came to my present version through experimentation over time. The latest three iterations I've actually been indifferent between, though they're slightly different from each other. I'll give my thoughts on the recent iterations after the recipe, below. It should be easy to make a vegetarian version of this; just omit the pork! I'd probably substitute shiitake or black mushrooms in their place, if you wanted to do that. Or even without dropping the pork.

Will’s 麻婆豆福 Ma Po Tofu

½ lb ground pork
1 block medium-firm tofu
3 green onions, chopped, divided into white, middle, green sections
1 small onion, diced
2 small tomatoes, diced
2 TBS vegetable oil
¼ cup chicken broth or water
1 TBS corn starch mixed with 1.5 TBS water
[alternatively: 1 cup broth or water, 2 TBS corn starch mixed with 2 TBS water]

The Sauce:
1 heaping TBS 辣豆辦醬 spicy broad bean sauce
1 heaping TBS chili garlic sauce
2 TBS soy sauce
1 TBS 豆豉 salted black bean, chopped [omit if desired]
4 dried chili peppers
1/3 TBS brown sugar

  1. Press tofu 10 minutes or so, and cut into small cubes
  2. Mix the sauce’s ingredients in small bowl and set aside
  3. Heat oil in skillet or wok medium-high heat until shimmering
  4. Add onion and green onion whites, stir-fry until fragrant
  5. Add pork and stir, breaking the meat apart into tiny pieces
  6. Add the sauce and toss to coat
  7. Add tomatoes and green onion middles, stir for a 1-2 minutes
  8. Add tofu and water or chicken broth, gently mix to coat with sauce
  9. Once tofu has absorbed some flavor, turn heat down to low, push ingredients aside and add corn starch/water mixture (stir before pouring to make sure the corn starch is suspended in the water)
  10. Gently stir to spread the starch throughout as it thickens
  11. Turn heat back up to medium-high, add green onion greens and mix in (or add green onions on top at the end for a prettier look)

The first of the last three versions didn't have the the cup of broth (just a smaller amount of water) or the salted black beans. The next added the salted black beans, which brings it closer in flavor to the "standard" version, and the latest added the full cup of broth. While I like having the thick soup in the dish, I found that it homogenized the flavor somewhat. The flavors of the pork, tomatoes, onion, (tomatoes and onion totally not traditional) salted black beans, and sauces didn't stand out so much anymore. The process is much the same, though, and it's all good to me. And of course, I expect my mapo tofu will continue to evolve.

Green onion chopped with whites, middles, greens in their order.

Plated, or bowled, as it were.


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