Ma po tofu
I have eaten great ma po tofu in Australia and even Singapore but in Malaysia, this spicy signature Sichuan dish has always been elusive. Just as in the less authentic Chinese restaurants in most countries other than China, ma pa tofu in Malaysia has been adapted for local tongues and the dish is totally different from the real thing in Sichuan, China. Our local version is a plate of bland wimpy tofu bonded with cornstarch sauce that tastes of tomato ketchup, far from the authentic version that hits your taste buds and nasal cells with the wonderful combination of chili oil, Sichuan peppercorns and hot broad bean sauce. But of all the countries, ma po tofu is the most unauthentic in Japan, where it is very popular but is totally adulterated into a thick saucey dish that doesn't taste a bit like the original ma po tofu.
It is almost like a test of a restaurant's authenticity to me, whenever I order ma po tofu. Just by the look, I know whether the dish is authentic. There should be red chili oil, lots of it so that instead of a cornstarch sauce, the tofu swims in red oil. There should be Sichuan peppercorns, usually in powder form. There shouldn't be thick gooey sauce, although I have been wrong on this because I have come across a ma po tofu that looked too corn-starchy yet it it had the flavor of the Sichuan peppercorns, hot broad beans sauce and chili oil, which are absolutely essential to the dish. I think cornstarch is added when there's too much liquid in the dish and a lot of liquid makes it easier to turn the tofu pieces without breaking them up. Definitely an amateur's trick.
Hot broad bean sauce from China. These sauces are very salty and the best are the ones with some whole broad beans intact. Brands vary in taste, so get a good one. Lee Kum Kee's hot bean paste is not.
Even with all the essential ingredients, ma po tofu can turn out bland. That was my ma po tofu before meeting Leila, who's from Chengdu, Sichuan. I used to cook a bland ma po tofu because my tofu was cut too big and I thought a shorter cooking time will result in softer, silkier tofu. Leila taught me two important tips about cooking ma po tofu: the tofu must be cut small, to increase the surface area so that more sauce can coat the tofu, and equally important, so that the tofu will not break up into a mess (think span and tension). Tip no. 2 is that you must let the tofu cook for at least 5 minutes or longer in the sauce. Leila lets her tofu cook gently for nearly 10 minutes, but I can't wait so I don't.
In KK, I like the home-made tofu from a lady who has a stall next to Chiu Tai Seng. I never liked sui (water) doufu (as white beancurd is called in Chinese) and it was only recently that I've come to like tofu especially after eating home made tofu from this aunty. Most tofu in our markets is coagulated with calcium sulphate which masks the subtle soy beans flavor and makes tofu slightly firmer (ideal for making stuffed tofu) and more easier to handle. One stall in Lido makes silken tofu with fruit acid, but the tofu is not very fragrant, probably because the soy bean milk is not concentrated. I dislike the fact that everybody dips their hands into the trough of water where the tofu is immersed without using a plastic bag or glove. I also dislike the silken tofu packed in a plastic container; the tofu never comes out whole. A good strongly soya bean-flavored silken tofu makes all the difference to this dish.
Sichuan peppercorns are pink and naturally cracked open.
One last word on ma po tofu. Apparently there are two stories to the name of this dish. Ma (as pronounced in the second intonation) means pocked-marked while po means grandma, and a certain pocked-marked lady in Sichuan was said to have come up with this dish long ago. However, ma also means numb, and the second story says that the word ma refers to the distinct Sichuan flavor called mala which means numbing hot, a sensation that comes from the Sichuan peppercorns and la means spicy-hot, which comes from chili oil. I never knew Sichuan peps had that numbing property until I went to Sichuan about 3 years ago. Up to then I thought the pink Sichuan peps had this nice distinct flavor that is different from white or black pepper. It turned out that the Sichuan peps we get in this country (and probably elsewhere other than China) aren't fresh enough to give the ma sensation. Leila insisted that I store the Sichuan peps she brought me in a glass container in the fridge to retain the freshness. If you haven't experienced ma, you must. Take a Sichuan pep and chew it with your front teeth. Within seconds, the tip of your tongue will tingle and you'll feel some bubbles effervescing on it and then a slight numbness will take over. It's fun and addictive. I love the thrill of mala. I dream of visiting Chengdu and Chongqing in Sichuan and eating all the mala food. Imagine a cuisine where not only the flavor is important, but the sensation too. Amazing.
Ma po tofu is a dish full of flavors and is best eaten with hot plain rice.
Ma Po Tofu
500g silken beancurd
150g beef or pork, minced
2 T hot broad beans paste
1/2-1 T light soy sauce (optional)
1 T fresh ginger, minced
1 T garlic, minced
2 T Sichuan peppercorn oil
2 T red chili oil
1/2 t Sichuan peppercorns, freshly grounded
1/2- 1 cup Swanson's chicken stock
2 T spring onions, cut fine
2 T Chinese leeks, in 1.5 cm diagonal lengths
1. Cut the tofu into 1.5 cm or 2 cm cubes, put into a colander to drain away all water. There's no need to blanch the tofu.
2. Heat the Sichuan peppercorn oil in a wok, or just use veg oil and add 1 t Sichuan peppercorns when the oil begins to smoke. Lower heat to medium. You can remove the peppercorn or let it remain in the oil. Quickly (the peppercorns burn easily) add the bean paste. Fry a couple of seconds until fragrant. Now add the chopped spring onions, garlic and ginger and fry in medium heat for a couple of seconds.
3. Add the minced meat, breaking it up to separate and to mix well. Fry for a minute or more, until the meat is nearly cooked. Add 1/2 T light soy sauce.
4. Add the 1/2 cup chicken stock (remember that the tofu will release liquid as it cooks), then the tofu and stir carefully. Cover, and let it simmer (medium heat) for 5-7 minutes.
5. Add the leeks, stir well to mix. Taste and add more stock only if necessary (not too much or the dish becomes bland and watery), bean paste or soy sauce to taste. If there's too much water, you can thicken with a cornstarch solution (2T cornstarch : 2 T water) but this is not very authentic.
6. Remove onto a plate and sprinkle with grounded Sichuan peppercorn and chili oil.