23 February 2011

Szechuan season - pock-marked mother Chen's beancurd (mapo tofu)

Why oh why have I only just got around to getting the ingredients needed for cooking Szechuan food at home? What a fool. I got the ubiquitous (and excellent) book by Fuscia Dunlop a while ago but a quick read on a work-bound bus gave me the impression that a large amount of obscure or hard to obtain ingredients were needed for even the most basic of recipes. When I browsed it more thoroughly one lazy weekend morning I realised this wasn’t true at all. What you really, really, need is not much – fermented broad-bean and chilli paste (dou ban jiang), Szechuan peppercorn and dried chillis pop up in most things, with Shaoxing wine, preserved vegetables and Chinkiang vinegar forming a second rank of importance.

I’ve been eating in the amazing Szechuan restaurants London has to offer and evangelising to friends and family about them but finally I can do it at home! And bonus of bonuses – it’s dead quick and very easy.

tofu - most misunderstood of ingredients

Straight into a classic – Mapo tofu. My, what wondrous interplay of ingredients! Feel the heat, feel the soft tofu, taste the salt and savour of the bean paste (best ingredient ever) and then feel the heat again. Lips kissed by the spices for seconds afterwards. Bliss.
  • 500g tofu
  • bunch of spring onions
  • chilli bean paste
  • Szechuan peppercorns + dried chillis (I used Vietnamese medium ones and they were grand)
  • fermented black beans (not essential I found)
  • thickener (potato flour recommend by FD but I used corn flour very happily)
  • light soy

Soak the tofu in chunks in boiling water. Toast SPs and chilli and grind down to a powder. Fry the bean paste in oil, add chillis and fermented black beans. I did a vegetarian version but traditionally here you would add minced beef and fry it (or pork and shiitake mushrooms for a Hunanese version apparently).

Add the tofu, and stock (veg bouillon is fine) and simmer for five minutes. Add the spring onions, soy sauce and the thickening agent. 'Break the rawness' of the spring onions for a few minutes then dish it out. Suggested serving: cover with massive amounts of ground chilli and SP.

Delicious with some greens on the side - cucumber and kale in this case softened in the pan and dressed with sesame oil.


  1. I would have thought fermented black beans are essential in this recipe, otherwise what sets it apart from just being tofu in chilli bean sauce...?

    Ma Po tofu was one of the first Sichuan dishes I made at home, and I fell instantaneously in love with it.

  2. Yeah true – they didn’t seem to add much taste when I did it, so maybe my ratio of chilli bean paste to fermented beans was a bit wonky and they didn’t come through enough? Will add more next time. Quite like the sound of cooking it with pork too..

  3. You know, I've never cooked with tofu and keep shying away from it. Your post is enticing me, though!

  4. Cheers Jill. It's really nice and very easy/quick. Definitely recommended - nice fried first also, so it goes a bit crispy. Also pretty cheap - I got my 800g block for £1.40.

  5. My favourite...spicy and delicious. I love to add minced meat, too. Perfect with rice...mmmm