I love the flavors of Ma Po Tofu at Szechuan restaurants. Years ago, I loved the traditional meaty version of this dish. Ma Po Tofu is one of the most popular dishes from the Sichuan/Szechuan province. Made from tofu in a spicy sauce, typically oily, and usually with minced pork or beef, most Ma Po Tofu recipes rely on fermented bean paste known as doubanjiang, for the spicy sauce. The most prized doubanjiang comes from the town of Pixian.
According to legend, “Ma” stands for “ma-zi” which means pockmarks and “Po” is the first syllable of “popo” which means an old woman or grandma. So, ma po could mean an old pockmarked woman?? Not such an appealing image!
Recently, I tried meat-free versions of this classic at a local restaurant–tasty, but swimming in orange oil. I went back for another try and asked for an oil-free preparation. This request was met with a quizzical stare and I ended up bland plate of tofu in some sort of mild brown sauce. I asked for some hot sauce but all they had was chile oil. Adding some of the chile flakes from the oil made the dish a little more interesting but it really had no taste resemblance to their prior Ma Po Tofu.
I set out to make this dish at home with no meat and no oil, but I could not find any fermented bean paste at my local market. (Later, I found doubanjiang from Pixian at Amazon and ordered that but wanted to make some Ma Po before it arrived.) So, my first attempt was anything but traditional—I call it Ma Po inspired. I used ingredients I found at at my local Safeway–Sambal Oelek Ground Fresh Chili Paste for $2.79 a jar and Dynasty Shiitake Dried Black Mushrooms for $2.39 for a 1 ounce bag. I also used a small container of fresh crimini mushrooms. It turned out to be delicious!
Once the fermented bean paste from Pixian arrived, I made another batch that was a little more traditional. I have a couple of caveats about the bean paste product-. First, it is packaged in a plastic pouch that is messy to work with if you are not going to use the entire package. For this recipe, I used about 1/4 of the package. I snipped off a corner and squeezed out what I needed and then squeezed the remainder into a glass refrigerator jar to use later–store in the refrigerator. Second, in the finished dish, I found that the bean paste had some large hard pieces of chile.peel that I wasn’t crazy about. I may look for another brand next time just to compare, but the flavor of this one is great.
The Table Karma adaptation of this classic dish omits the meat and the oil and increases the vegetable content by adding dried and fresh mushrooms, onion, and lots of peas and carrots. With some rice, it’s hearty and satisfying meal! Next time, I’ll try adding the traditional Szechuan peppercorn for a more mouth-numbing experience! Here is the recipe:
Dried Shitake Mushrooms—1 oz. steeped in 1 cup hot water for 30 min. (reserve liquid) and then sliced. Here’s a tip—I use kitchen scissors to cut the rehydrated mushrooms. For this version, I had purchased ingredients from Whole Foods, including Fungus Amongus Organic Dried Shitake priced at $5.49 for a 1 oz. package (more than twice the cost of the Safeway mushrooms, and, although organic, the taste was no better, maybe worse. I am wondering if organic matters in fungus/mushrooms—will research and report).
Large knob of fresh ginger—minced—Here’s a tip—it isn’t really necessary to peel the ginger. Wash it and cut off the ends and just mince up the rest. The peel just disappears in the cooking process. Don’t waste your time. I like a lot of fresh ginger—the amount is up to you.
3-4 cloves of fresh garlic, minced
1 small onion, chopped finely. I think this is an untraditional addition, but I like it.
8 oz. fresh crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 bunch of green onions sliced on the diagonal
1/3 cup fermented bean sauce—more or less to taste
¼ cup tamari—to taste
Frozen peas and carrots—about one cup or more. This may not be traditional, but I love having more vegetables.
1 pound tofu, cubed—I like firm silken organic tofu
1-2 tablespoons cornstarch stirred into mushroom liquid or water, as needed to thicken sauce
Hot sauce—to taste
Heat a saute pan until water will spit and dance
Add the onion, garlic and ginger to the hot pan and stir to dry sauté for about 30 seconds, then add small amounts of water and keep stirring for about a minute or two, until the onions are translucent
Add the sliced mushrooms, fresh and shiitake, and the green onions, reserving some of the greenest parts for later
Saute for about 2 minutes, adding some of the reserved mushroom liquid
add the fermented bean paste and the peas and carrots, and a little soy sauce, stirring to combine, cook until the peas and carrots are warm
add the tofu and combine gently, as the tofu will break easily, add the reserved green onions
if the sauce seems thin, stir in cornstarch, dissolved in liquid, as needed–I used all of the mushroom liquid and a little cornstarch
taste and season with additional soy sauce and chile sauce to taste
serve with steamed white or brown rice