Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Best Darn Tofu Dish Ever: Mapo Tofu

Vegan Mapo Tofu

A Vegan Remake of a Sichuan Classic

The name of this dish translates as “pock-marked woman’s bean curd”— so-called because it originated with a roadside vendor who was scarred by smallpox.  English spellings for the dish vary and include Mapo doufu, Ma po dou fu, and Ma-po tofu.

But however you spell it, Mapo tofu is the best tofu dish.  Ever.

Traditionally, Mapo Tofu includes ground beef (sometimes ground pork).  These versions are good, but they gild the lily; the meat seems superfluous to me.  Classic Mapo Tofu is also oil-laden and fiery hot — not a dish that suits everyone’s digestive system.

My version eliminates much of the oil, tames the heat, and replaces the meat with portobello mushrooms, which pack a flavor punch of their own.

The result is a vegan beauty that your whole family can enjoy.  And they probably won’t even realize it’s vegan unless you tell them.
Vegan Mapo Tofu

Recipe: Vegan Mapo Tofu

Traditionally, this dish is cooked in a wok. You can make it that way if you prefer.

But home stovetops don’t produce enough heat to power a traditional wok, so a large (10 - 12”) skillet works better for most of us. Well-seasoned cast iron is great, though I generally use a nonstick skillet.

You lose some of the stir-fry effect when you cook this dish in a skillet (you have to do more of a sauté). But that doesn’t matter, because we end up with a brief braise anyway.

Chinese cooking is unfamiliar (even scary) to many of us. I discuss this in a previous post, Simple and Quick Vegetable Stir-Fry. For this recipe, there is only one special ingredient (chili bean sauce) that is absolutely necessary. I’ll discuss sourcing for it later.

There are lots of recipes in books and on the web for Mapo Tofu, and most are fairly similar. My recipe is adapted from two different versions that Fuchsia Dunlop discusses in Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook.

This recipe serves 4.

  • 1 block firm tofu (a/k/a bean curd; buy whatever size your supermarket stocks, usually about 14 ounces)
  • 3 – 4 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 4 teaspoons each finely minced garlic and ginger (or more, to taste)
  • ½ pound portobello mushrooms, sliced into thin strips (can increase up to a pound)
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons neutral oil (peanut or canola oil; although olive oil isn’t “neutral,” I sometimes use it because I like the flavor)
  • 1 – 1½ tablespoons fermented black beans (you can omit this if you want, although you’ll lose a bit of flavor; see notes)
  • 2 tablespoons chili bean sauce (see notes)
  • 1 teaspoon pepper flakes (very optional as they will greatly increase the dish’s heat; I love spicy, but I usually omit)
  • 1 cup water or vegetable stock (you can use chicken stock if making non-vegan version)
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons light soy sauce (see note)
  • 1 teaspoon white sugar (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch mixed with 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 1 – 1½ teaspoons sesame oil
  • 4 scallions thinly sliced
  • ½ teaspoon Roasted Sichuan Pepper Powder (optional; see notes)
  • Cooked rice as an accompaniment
Sichuan Chili Bean Sauce in a Ramekin
Chili Bean Sauce in a ramekin

Prep Work

This is always the most time-consuming part of Chinese cooking.  But time spent here makes the actual cooking fast and easy.
  1. Soak shiitake mushrooms in hot water for 30 minutes or more.  After 30 minutes, drain and squeeze dry.  Discard woody stems, if any, and chop fine.
  2. If you have to prepare the rice, I’d start it now.  It will get done before the rest of the dish is finished, but you can easily hold it over very low heat.  I usually prepare 1 cup of dry rice (makes about 3 cups cooked), and generally have some left over.
  3. Cut tofu into 1-inch cubes and steep for a few minutes in gently simmering water that is lightly salted.  Don’t allow to boil.  The purpose of this step is to refresh the tofu.  Can simmer up to 20 minutes or so.  Eventually drain and dry.
  4. Mince garlic and ginger.  
  5. Rinse and dry portobello mushrooms.  Remove stems if you wish.  Slice mushrooms into thin strips.
  6. Thinly slice scallions.  Prepare corn starch mixture.
Assembling Ingredients
  1. To speed the cooking process (and make things less hectic), arrange your ingredients in the order you need them:  cooking oil first; then garlic and ginger; then portobello and shiitake mushrooms.  After that, chili bean sauce, fermented black beans (optional), and red pepper flakes (very optional).  Then water or vegetable stock, tofu, light soy sauce, and optional sugar.  At the very end come the corn starch, sesame oil, Sichuan pepper powder (optional), and scallions.
  2. I generally use water when I make this dish.  If you want to use vegetable (or chicken) stock, I recommend soup base.  For more information about using and sourcing soup/stock bases, see Stock Excuses.
  3. I don’t premeasure the soy sauce or sesame oil, but instead pour by eye and taste.  So I just have the bottles at the ready when I start to cook.

This is actually the easiest part.  Begin about 30 minutes after you cover the shiitake mushrooms with hot water to soak.
  1. Heat large frying pan on high (if using nonstick, keep heat at medium-high in order to preserve the finish).  When hot, add cooking oil.
  2. Once oil is heated (this takes only a few seconds – it will shimmer and may start to smoke), add garlic and ginger and stir-fry for 30 seconds.  Add portobello and shiitake mushrooms and stir-fry until mushrooms are cooked through (3 minutes). 
  3. Add chili bean sauce, black beans, optional red pepper flakes (taste as you add pepper flakes so you don’t overseason).  Stir-fry for about 2 minutes.
  4. Add water or stock, stir well, then add drained tofu.  Season with soy sauce, optional sugar (taste before adding sugar; its purpose is to balance and tone down a too-spicy sauce).  Cover frying pan, turn heat down to low, and simmer for 5 minutes.
  5. Add corn starch to desired thickness.  Start with half the cornstarch and stir to incorporate.  If you like a thicker sauce, add more corn starch mixture.  Don’t allow the heat to get above a simmer (you don’t want to boil the corn starch).
  6. Throw in half the scallions, stir.  Kill the stovetop heat, add sesame oil and optional Sichuan pepper powder.  Stir.
  7. Alternative:  if you wonder about your tolerance for Sichuan pepper (see note below), don’t add it in step 6.  Rather, serve the pepper powder at table – people can just sprinkle as much as they like on their tofu.
  8. Put tofu mixture in a bowl (or separate serving bowls) and garnish with remainder of scallions.  Serve with rice.

Lee Kum Kee Brand Chili Bean Sauce or Toban Djan
Chili Bean Sauce is a Must for this Dish

Ingredient Notes

Chili Bean Sauce (Toban Djan; sometimes called chili bean paste; may also be called Sichuan chili bean sauce) is made of salted chile peppers and fava beans (broad beans). It may also contain soybeans, but make sure broad beans are included in whatever you buy. Although there is a spicy hot element to this sauce, the heat is pleasant rather than unbearable. Chili bean sauce is an essential ingredient for Mapo Tofu; it gives the dish its characteristic taste and color. Most American supermarkets don’t carry chili bean sauce, though every Chinese grocery will. However, in a Chinese grocery you may be faced with several choices, which can be bewildering. How do you know which one to choose? I highly recommend the Lee Kum Kee brand. Its flavor is not particularly hot. (Taste it straight out of the jar — it’s spicy but not five-alarm). Not every Chinese grocery carries this brand, but if you live in a reasonably large city with several Chinese grocery stores, at least one of them will surely stock it (Lee Kum Kee is a major brand). Otherwise, it’s available via the internet.   Amazon carries it, although shipping is expensive. Chili bean sauce is also used in many other recipes, most notably in Red Cooked Beef, a kind of Chinese pot roast.

Fermented Black Beans (or dou chi) are soybeans that have been dried, soaked in water, steamed, and then fermented. They aren’t essential for this dish, but really add a nice flavor. Sometimes called “black salted beans,” they look a little like raisins and taste somewhat like intense, concentrated soy sauce. Occasionally, you see them flavored with ginger. They will keep for a long time (over a year). After I open a package, I put them in an airtight container that I place in the refrigerator. (I’m overcautious. They’ll keep fine in a pantry too). They usually are sold in plastic bags (sometimes in canisters) and can be found in virtually any Chinese grocery. They are also available at Amazon. Most cookbooks (not all) suggest rinsing dou chi before use, so I usually do.

Roasted Sichuan Pepper Powder is made by roasting (or toasting) Sichuan peppercorns in a small skillet on top of the stove, then grinding them to produce a powder. There’s a recipe for it in my post on Roasted Sichuan Pepper Powder. Homemade powder is preferable to purchased because, once ground, the peppercorns lose their pungency quickly. Heat isn’t the main attribute of Sichuan peppers. Rather, they contribute a wonderful aroma and create a tingling/numbing effect on the lips and tongue. It’s an effect some find unpleasant, so you may choose to omit this ingredient.

Dried Shiitake Mushrooms can be found in every Chinese grocery and many supermarkets. Although not essential to this dish, they do provide extra flavor. You can substitute fresh shiitake mushrooms if you can’t find the dried version.

Soy Sauce (or jiang you) comes in “light” and “dark” varieties. Light soy sauce is thinner than dark and much saltier. If the bottle doesn’t specify which kind it is (in American supermarkets, most don’t), assume it’s light — which is what’s required for this recipe. Pearl River Bridge is one widely available brand of Chinese soy sauce of good quality. Kikkoman soy sauce (a “light” sauce) is available in every supermarket and is my choice when I am not using a Chinese soy sauce. It will work fine in this recipe. The “lite” soy sauces you see on supermarket shelves are so named because they have reduced sodium (although they are also “light” soy sauce).

Vegan Mapo Tofu

Tofu Anxiety

In the United States, most of us eat very little tofu — because most of us aren’t really all that comfortable with it. Although we know it’s healthy and nutritious and all that jazz, we have no idea what to do with it. Plus it has a weird texture. And it tastes like . . . well, actually, what does it taste like?

Deborah Madison, author of This Can’t Be Tofu, an excellent cookbook devoted to tofu recipes, recounts a story she read in the New York Times while writing her book: A woman was placing a container of tofu in her shopping basket when she was approached by a man who asked her what she used it for. She replied that, well, she usually “put it in the refrigerator, looked at it for several weeks, and then threw it away.” The man (I imagine him nodding sadly) said that’s what his wife did too — adding that he’d hoped the woman “had a better recipe.”

I bet most of us have that woman’s “recipe” memorized.

Including me. It’s only recently that I started to work with tofu in earnest. I can’t imagine what took me so long — it’s a versatile ingredient that blends well with other flavors. But tofu just wasn’t part of my culinary DNA. Not the way it is in Japan or China, where tofu is a frequent (often daily) food.

Eat Local

What’s ironic is that many of us today spend time scouring our markets for locally sourced products — pasture-raised meat, free-range eggs — because we think it’s good to “eat local” (and it is). But we forget that the United States leads the world in production of soy beans (the raw material for tofu).

Within 500 miles of St. Louis (where I live), farmers grow 80% of the nation’s soy beans.  Much of the crop is barged down the Mississippi river and shipped to China and Japan.  People in those countries have made our local food their own, while we’re literally selling our locally grown farm products “down the river.”

So while a sizzling two-inch Porterhouse still speaks to me, I find that I’m eating more tofu — because I’ve finally learned to like it and cook with it.  I’m not a vegetarian, nor am I likely to become one.  But Vegan Mapo Tofu could make me rethink that.  There’s a world of flavor I’ve overlooked in the past and the main ingredient is (metaphorically speaking) right underfoot.

I still have a way to go in my tofu education, however.  So I think I’ll re-read Deborah Madison’s book.  I gotta figure out what to do with the rest of those almost-expired cartons of tofu in my fridge.

Vegan Mapo Tofu


amna said...

love it! i live in singapore so the ingredients will be super easy to source. bookmarked!

Neeli said...

Great ingredient descriptions. This is certainly on a future week of meals for me. Lovely pics too. I'll be back.

Kitchen Riffs said...

@Nags, Glad you liked it. You're in a great spot for both ingredients and food.

@Neeli, Thanks for your comment, and hope you enjoy your future visits to the blog.

FJKramer said...

Great adapation of a classic. Your explanations of ingredients and techinques are wonderful. I've had several versions in Chinese restaurants where the pork was MIA so I don't think it's that uncommon.

I did have the opportunity to learn the dish in a cooking school in China. They used pork. My adapation uses chicken or pork. I've also replaced the meat with eggplant cubes. And I always use the ground Sichuan peppers. It really makes a difference.

Nice to meet another fan of Dunlop. I think she's amazing.

Kitchen Riffs said...

FJK, thanks for the comment! You've cooked in China? Very cool. I'll definitely be searching out Chinese recipes on your blog.

Fuchsia Dunlop truly IS amazing. Her recipes are clear and to-the-point and presented in the way that people actually cook. Or at least in the way that I actually cook. I've learned a ton from her.

Anonymous said...

holy cow. i made this tonight and it is insanely awesome. highly recommended.

Anonymous said...

i should mention i added chinese eggplant along with the mushrooms in the recipe. amazing.

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for both of your comments. Adding the Chinese Eggplant is brilliant — I love the idea. Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for letting me know.

paperplane said...

Late night hunger pangs; Mapo Tofu is the bomb.

Us Vegans do alright eh.

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi paperplane, this is seriously good stuff. Even meat lovers won't realize this dish is vegan! Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

I love the meat version of Ma Po but we are leaning toward a less meat-centric diet in our house and this looks fantastic. Haven't used the dried black beans before so looking forward to that. Re the Sichuan peppercorns- we love them in our Ma Po and think it is one of the essential ingredients but we also add fresh coriander ( cilantro) on top of the dish and a splash of sesame oil and roasted peppercorns.
Thanks for the recipe.

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Anonymous, we eat plenty of meat but for this dish actually prefer the meatless version. I agree that I wouldn't want to give up the Sichuan peppercorns, but can understand why someone might decide to. I really like the idea of the cilantro and sesame oil! Thanks for the comment.

Veggie Mama said...

I can't even... This looks amazing! I need it yesterday. Yum!

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Veggie Mama, this is truly good stuff - you really do need it! Thanks for the comment.

Stewart Smith said...

Absolutely delicious. Just absolutely wonderful.

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Stewart, isn't this great? Thanks for the comment.

BL said...

Looks interesting

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi BL, it is, it is! :-) Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

I used this recipe as a base for the mapo eggplant dish I just made. I made a few minor tweaks based on what I have at hand (e.g.,used jjajang instead of dou chi). I'll need to add more chili peppers next time to get it to the level I want, but I can certainly say that this was indeed the tastiest vegan mapo dish I've made yet. Thank you!

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Anonymous, love the idea of using this in an eggplant dish! I just may steal that idea. :-) Thanks for the comment.

Susan said...

As an comparatively newcomer to plant based eating, I appreciate that you have vegan options in your search. I also appreciate all your notes as I am always learning though I've been cooking for decades. This sounds very tasty and I've learned to love tofu, which I previously avoided. Eggplant, mushrooms, chickpeas and lentils are now on regular rotation here. It all depends on the prep!

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Susan, although we like meat and seafood, we actually eat plant-based much more often than not. Vegetarian, usually, not vegan. Just happens that way. This is a great dish -- SO much flavor. Haven't made it for awhile -- I need to again. Thanks for the comment.