This is a lovely dish from the province of Szechuan, China, with an equally loverly story attached to its origin which may be read here. Only a handful of Chinese restaurants abroad ever offer this dish, for it isn’t a quick stir-fry: it is a simmered, stew-like dish with a bit of preliminary prep-work involved. Traditionally, a small quantity of ground pork (or beef) is included, and hitherto I have followed suit.
When I received an Arusuvai Friendship Chain gift of extremely-fresh, Szechuan peppercorns sent by the ever-talented Musical, I set to work almost immediately to prepare this long-time favorite which prominently features this tongue-numbing spice. I sat there, nibbling daintily away at a plateful with freshly-steamed rice, resisting an urge to shovel it in greedily (it is so delicious…) when a few thoughts struck me: truly, it is the finely-balanced sauce which dominates the flavour….the ground pork lends a gentle sweetness, but mostly the pieces serve as a textural counterpoint to the soft bean-curd…
And then, within a span of a few days, two jolting pieces of information crossed my path: first, I discovered the PETA videos posted on Youtube.com (I won’t go into detail here, but it would be sufficient to say that I saw things which I will not soon forget); second, the family chiropractor sent us his usual monthly newsletter. Most often this contains useful tidbits that he gleans from his personal wanderings in Ayurveda-land, but this time he included a brief summary of the findings of recent research that linked the consumption of animal protein to inflammation, and specifically a link to various forms of arthritis. And then…Jai of Jugalbandi wrote this post– furthur cementing my new convictions. So, I decided to make my consumption of animal protein an even rarer occasion than it already is. And I began to think of a new way to make ma po tofu…
Over the years, I’ve tried a few different recipes, but I really liked the one found in Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking. It’s so delicious. And I knew it would be delicious still without a half-pound of pork. But what to add in its place? TVP (textured vegetable protein) is an obvious choice; it closely replicates the chewy texture of meat, but… I don’t like to rely on a factory-made product too much, nor does it add a whole lot in flavour…
Mushrooms. I’ve sometimes added various types of mushrooms to this dish anyway… they’re somewhat chewy…they would add a subtle flavour… but how will I convert them into little pieces like that? The ways are endless… Walnuts. Coarsely-ground. Delicately-sweet, and they are also used frequently in China. Use both.
But first, who will I pass on the Arusuvai “torch” to? Hmmm…good question. Truly, no-one answered my riddle correctly. However… two people were quite close:
Linda of Out of the Garden answered “tofu” correctly (but seasoned differently)…and
Zlamushka of her own Spicy Kitchen answered “Ma…” correctly (but named another Szechuanese dish).
Since these two were the closest, I invited them to be my recipients of a little suprise…and they have both accepted the offer. Congratulations to both of you!
And now, Mushroom Meal!!!:
I took 1/2 pound (8 oz.) of plain old “button” mushrooms (they’re popular for a reason) and shredded them into a moist heap. But, not wanting shreddy-strands in my dish, I dehydrated this (I used an electric food-dehydrator, but an oven on a low-heat setting will work as well). Then, I took these dried shreds and smashed them into a coarse, granular powder in a mortar…the restrained use of an electric mixer/grinder or food processor will do the job just as nicely. We all end up with about 2-3 tablespoons. I suppose the same could be done to already-dried (stems removed) shiitake/Chinese black mushrooms- though I think their flavour would be too dominant here- but perhaps another milder-flavoured ‘shroom?…
Ma Po Doufu/Tofu
(Pel’s vegan version based on Mrs. Kuo’s)
3 blocks of firm tofu (original recipe calls for 4- 3″X3″ blocks…generally, American blocks are a bit larger)
2 T peanut (or other) oil
4 slices of peeled, fresh ginger; minced
1/2 C coarsely-ground raw walnuts
2-3 T mushroom meal (dried, coarsely-ground mushrooms– see above)
1 T Chinese cooking-wine, or dry sherry
1 T hot bean paste (AKA Szechuan bean paste)
1 T dark/sweet soy sauce
1 t or more, to taste, red chile oil* (optional)
1 C lightly-salted chana broth (liquid from cooking chickpeas/garbanzo beans) or other vegetable-stock
2 t cornstarch dissolved in 1 T cold water
1 T dark/sweet soy sauce
2 t roasted sesame-seed oil
2 whole spring onions (I used more cuz I like ’em: 6), thinly sliced
1/2 t (or more if you like) lightly dry-roasted and crushed Szechuan peppercorns
1)Cut the bean-curd into 1/2″ cubes; cover with hot water and drain just before adding.
2)Heat the peanut oil in a wok over med-low flame; add the ginger and fry until fragrant; add the walnuts and fry just until they begin to smell roasted.
3)Add 1 C of hot water and the mushroom meal; bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally at first and then more frequently, until the mixture is fairly dry and the mushrooms have reconstituted- about 20 minutes.
4)Add the seasonings and stir well; add the chana or vegetable broth.
5)Drain the bean-curd and scatter these into the pan; stir very gently to even these out; bring to a gentle boil, cover the pan and cook for 5 minutes over med-low heat, stirring once during this time.
6)Stir the binding sauce well, then pour in a spiral over the contents of the pan; stir gently until the sauce thickens; turn off heat.
7)Gently fold in the spring onions;
8)Turn onto a serving-platter and sprinkle the ground peppercorns over the top; serve with hot steamed rice. You will assuredly enjoy! (Did I mention this is delicious?)
*Red chile oil can be bought, or simply made this way: heat 1 C oil until quite hot; remove from heat and add 6 T (3/8 C) ground red chiles (stand back, the fumes will irritate your breathing apparatus), stir gently for about a minute, then add 1 C more of oil to halt the frying. Allow to cool completely, strain through a musin cloth or several layers of cheesecloth and pour into a bottle. Besides being a useful cooking-sauce, it can also be used as an ingredient in dipping-sauces and salad-dressings… hotness yum!