Tofu – it’s not generally the ingredient that makes me think of the word delicious. However, used for its texture and ability to soak up both flavours and juices (thinking especially of the fried tofu used in laksa) it has unique properties that can’t be matched.
Silken tofu is especially fascinating to me, it’s delicacy requiring tender handling which I’ve become better at over time (my first attempt, a few years ago, resulted in an unappetising looking mush, although still tasty). Two dishes that make the most of the custard like texture, and at the same time are intensely tasty, are well-known classic Chinese dishes – Ma Po Tofu and Salt and Pepper Tofu.
While there are many versions of both of these recipes all over the internet (and no doubt many cook books) the versions I use are Kylie Kwong’s recipe for Deep-fried silken tofu with Sichuan pepper and salt from Recipes and Stories (see it here also) and Jill Dupleix’s Ma po beancurd (Old Food).
The legend of Ma Po Tofu (Ma apparently meaning pock-marked and Po meaning grandmother) is pretty consistent – a pock-marked Sichuan grandmother created it and cooked it from her own restaurant for many years. Variously she is described as essentially a poor outcast for her appearance , a woman of noble birth (Lady Chen) or the wife of a chef.
This dish has a fiery, salty intensity and the combination of the slightly resistant pork mince and the creamy tofu is a mouth feel sensation. It’s also a very easy and fast dish to make so it’s great for mid-week. My recommendation is to buy your tofu on the day you’re going to use it to make sure it’s as fresh as possible (if you’re using a firmer tofu that’s probably not so much of an issue). We’re lucky enough to live in a suburb with a large Vietnamese population that boasts a place that specialises in tofu – meaning they have a pretty high turnover of product. My addition of snake beans is probably inauthentic but I always like to get a bit of veg into my dishes if possible and both the colour and the crunch of the beans please me.
I once made this dish without the sprinkling of Sichuan pepper at the end but it’s not as good – for my taste this is an essential element to the dish.
Ma Po Tofu (adapted slightly from Jill Dupleix’s Old Food)
250g silken tofu
1 Tbl peanut oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 long red chilli, chopped
2 tsp finely grated ginger
250g pork mince
3-4 spring onions, finely sliced
2 Tbl chilli bean sauce
1/2 tsp sugar
1 Tbl Shao Hsing rice wine vinegar
2 Tbl dark soy sauce
125ml chicken stock
200 – 250g snake beans, cut into 4cm lengths
1/2 tsp Sichuan pepper corns, ground
small bunch coriander
Tip the water off the tofu and cut into 3 cm cubes while still in the container. Lay a thick wad of paper towel over the container and place a board behind it. Turn tofu out gently and leave to drain.
Heat wok on high until smoking then turn right down and add oil. Swirl to coat pan then add garlic, ginger and chilli and toss until just turning golden. Turn heat back up to high, add pork and stir fry for 5 minutes. Add spring onions, chilli bean sauce, sugar, vinegar, dark soy and stock and continue to stir fry for another 5 minutes.
Add green beans and toss in the sauce, then gently slide in the tofu cubes and turn over in the sauce very carefully. Cook on medium-low for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Sprinkle ground pepper and coriander over the top and stir through.
Serve with steamed jasmine rice.