When I started learning about Chinese cooking, the most intimidating part was the ingredients. My husband is Chinese, San Francisco has more than enough Chinese markets, but it’s still a little bit scary – especially when the labels aren’t in English. So, generally, when I’m making Asian recipes of any sort for the blog, I stick to ingredients that can easily be found at Whole Foods (or similar). After multiple tries, I realized that’s just not quite possible with Mapo Tofu. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come up with a couple amazing tofu dishes, which I may post in the future, but none of them qualified as Mapo Tofu. Three ingredients really make mapo tofu unique, and they’re all available on Amazon:
These are all wonderful & versatile ingredients, especially good for stir fry & dumpling fillings. If need be, you can substitute the Sichuan peppercorn for black peppercorn, but it doesn’t have that wonderful mouth numbing heat.
As I’ve mentioned in my other tofu recipes, I’ve hated tofu for most of my life. I’m still pretty picky about it; for me the firmer the better when it comes to tofu. Mushy is not my favorite texture. Mapo tofu is traditionally made with Silken tofu, but I like to use the extra firm variety, press out as much water as possible, and get just a bit of a crust on the outside. For that and other reasons, if you’re a Mapo purist, this recipe probably isn’t for you.
Speaking of my little recipe alterations, Mapo tofu is generally made with finely minced pork or steak. But I’m addicted to the grinder attachment on my Kitchenaid and use it whenever I get the chance. For this recipe I’ve ground up chuck roast and a few strips of bacon – which by the way is great for burgers too. If you want to go vegetarian, you can omit the meat all together and substitute vegetable broth for beef broth.
The heat level on Mapo is very subjective. Some people insist it should be so hot that it’s almost unpleasant to eat; I’ve definitely ordered it at restaurants and it was too hot to eat. I like it fairly spicy, but with a good amount of Sichuan pepper which is kind of mouth numbing but not incredible hot. When you’re making this, be sure to taste it on occasion and adjust the heat to your preference. I love Korean chili flakes, and use them in almost everything, but you can use whatever you prefer to add some heat – cayenne, chili powder or even hot sauce will work fine.
I prefer to use brown rice or a brown rice and quinoa mixture with this recipe. White rice is always wonderful, but the crunchy, nuttiness of brown rice (especially crispy brown rice) is wonderful here. It holds well to the thick and spicy sauce.
How to make Crispy Rice :
Crispy rice is very simple, but quite impressive, and as with almost everything simple but impressive…the devil is in the details.
It’s best to use day old rice, but if you don’t have any on hand (I almost never do), just cook your rice an hour or two ahead of time and lay it out on a baking sheet to cool.
Heat up the fat of your choice in a large, nonstick (definitely use nonstick, trust me, I’ve failed enough using cast iron that you shouldn’t have to) skillet. I generally use Avocado or coconut oil, but if I’m feeling indulgent I go for butter or even (gasp) duck fat (seriously, it’s so good). Your call.
Add the rice into the pan over medium high heat, spread it out well, and don’t touch it for about 4 minutes (but you know, if it seems like it’s burning, make sure it doesn’t). Then stir it gently until it’s as crispy as you like it.
Mix beef with both oils and a generous pinch of salt, white pepper and Chili flakes. Heat at large wok over medium high heat, add the beef and cook until it's all browned. Remove the beef from the pan and drain the oil and fat, reserving it for later.
Turn down the heat to medium, and return about 1 T of the oil to the pan. Add the minced garlic, ginger and white parts of scallions to wok and cook until softened. Add the Douban, black bean sauce, and chili flakes. Cook for about 3 minutes, until well combined.
While the sauce is cooking: press any excess liquid out of the tofu with paper towels, cut it into 1" cubes, and then toss it in 1 T of the cornstarch. Add the tofu to the wok, turn up the heat a bit, and cook until the tofu is coated in the seasoning and a little crispy around the edges.
Mix the other tablespoon of cornstarch with 2 T of water to make a slurry. Add the beef broth, soy sauce and cornstarch slurry and lower the heat to medium. Simmer until reduced by about half.
Taste the broth (make sure to let it cool a bit) if it's too spicy add a touch of sugar, not spicy enough add more chili flakes.
Turn the burner off, add the beef, scallions and cracked peppercorns. Taste again and adjust seasonings if needed. Mapo is very subjective. Some people like it more spicy, some more salty
Serve over rice - see notes for tips for the perfect crispy rice.