Anybody who says tofu is bland or boring hasn’t eaten mapo tofu, the intoxicatingly spicy, aromatic dish from the Sichuan Province of China.
Not like the mild Vietnamese tofu dishes I grew up with in Southern California, “mapo,” as some casually seek advice from it, first captured my consideration as a young person within the early Eighties, when my dad and his buddy — whom we at all times reverently referred to as Mr. Lee — let me tag alongside for lunch at a Chinese language restaurant. Because the adults talked, I ate as a lot of the tender tofu cubes and piquant meat sauce as I may with out seeming piggish.
Greater than smitten, I turned fascinated with the slithery brow-wiper, happening to analysis it in library books as a youth, touring to Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan Province and the dish’s birthplace) to know its origins, and later experimenting with it in my very own kitchen.
Mapo tofu is typically translated as “pockmarked previous girl’s bean curd.” (In Chinese language, “ma” refers to pockmarks, and “po” can seek advice from an older girl.) The identify is an inelegant nod to the smallpox-scarred pores and skin of Mrs. Chen, who is alleged to have invented the dish in the late 1800s at her household’s restaurant in northern Chengdu.
Because the story goes, porters lugging oil to market would frequent her institution, and in the future, they requested an inexpensive dish made from tofu and meat cooked up with among the oil they transported. Mrs. Chen seasoned her creation with Sichuan staples, and it turned successful, its reputation solely rising over time.
Once I lastly visited Chengdu in 2010, many years after my first style of mapo tofu, I knew I needed to attempt a model as near Mrs. Chen’s as attainable. Her restaurant not exists in its authentic type, however I headed to Chen Mapo Tofu, hoping that its recipe really descended from her as some have claimed. My journey companions and I sat on the restaurant, eagerly awaiting bona fide mapo tofu, and it lastly appeared, the tofu and nubbins of meat underneath a thick layer of fiery purple oil and plenty of huajiao, or tingly Sichuan peppercorn. However, surprisingly, it lacked the savory depth I had anticipated from its central seasoning, a fermented chile bean paste referred to as doubanjiang.
To deepen my understanding of doubanjiang, I checked in with Yu Bo, an internationally revered Sichuan chef, primarily based in Chengdu, who organized a go to to a centuries-old producer in Pixian, a suburb of Chengdu. There, in a walled facility the dimensions of a baseball diamond, had been rows of huge, lidded urns crammed with heady chiles and broad beans fermenting within the solar. I peered inside and inhaled the coarse, dark-red combination, pondering my subsequent mapo.
I hit pay dust when Zhong Yi, a graduate pupil at Sichuan College, invited me and my companions to her household’s Mid-Autumn Competition celebration. Her grandmother presided over the actions, quietly tasting and tweaking as everybody scrambled across the kitchen. The household made a dozen dishes, together with a mapo tofu that wasn’t as oily or fiery as Chen Mapo Tofu’s.
That they had additionally cooked additional beef seasoned with doubanjiang and mapo’s different substances — every thing however the tofu — and, towards the tip of the meal, Zhong Yi’s aunt made a thirteenth dish by spooning the meat atop angel hairlike wheat noodles and gleefully presenting it as “quick dan dan noodles.” That playful gesture was a long-lasting lesson in mapo tofu’s potential.
For the previous 10 years, I’ve thought in regards to the household’s improvisation and mapo’s culinary elasticity, however, not being of Chinese language heritage and missing a robust connection to Sichuan, I didn’t stray from the standard recipe that was a stable a part of my repertoire.
Then, final yr, I attempted a mapo tofu lasagna from the chef Mei Lin at Nightshade in Los Angeles, and examine Yu Bo’s mapo tofu with avocado. Solely then did I be happy to experiment. I whirled up a bath of silken tofu, then simmered it for a couple of minutes alongside the fermented substances. Collectively, they turned a creamy sauce that expressed mapo’s essence in a barely mellower type. It was good for spaghetti.
Nonetheless, there was leftover sauce. Its funky spiciness impressed quesolike concepts, so I served it with tortilla chips. The chip’s crunch complemented mapo tofu’s boldness nicely. Finally, I used the sauce for excellent mapo nachos, which I embellished with melty cheese, pickled jalapeños, olives and cilantro.
Who would have thought that such a easy dish may spur an almost 40-year fascination, dare I say obsession? Mapo tofu had me at first chew, and, whereas I’ll at all times respect its roots, tinkering has proved so scrumptious.