For the first time since university, I have a proper backpacking trip coming up – six weeks across northwest China – in order to update a guidebook. I’ll be heading to China’s Silk Road provinces, Gansu and Xinijiang, and Qinghai, a region of desert dust, wild camels and travel restrictions. I can’t wait (honestly). Go west, young yak!
The upshot of this is that Little Yak is going to take a detour into the world of the travelogue, and that this will be my last recipe post for a little while. Instead, you can look forward to seeing more of this unusual part of China, food-based interest in the form of naan bread and lamian (hand-pulled noodles), and at least one visit to a yak farm…
People do horrible things to tofu, using it willy-nilly as a meat replacement. Tofu pizza? I rest my case. Tofu is bland, it is wobbly and it is good for you, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for it to taste good – the secret is in how it’s prepared.
Mapo Tofu is one of the easiest ways to make tofu taste really delicious. ‘Mapo’ (麻婆，mápó) means a pockmarked old woman – the full name of this dish is Chen Mapo Tofu, literally “Pockmarked Old Lady Chen’s Tofu”. Not the most enticing name for something edible, but there we are. Mrs Chen lived in Chengdu at some unrecorded point in the past when she developed this recipe for tofu tossed in a Sichuan-style, chilli-spiked sauce. It’s since become a nationwide favourite, and is served across China with minor tweaks to adapt it to suit local palates. This however, is the real deal – serve it with rice to cool your flaming lips, and prepare to get addicted:
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Quantity: Enough for two hungry people to share with rice and one other dish
400g soft tofu (but not the silken kind), sliced into cubes
3 cloves garlic, minced and the same amount of fresh ginger, minced
2 tbsps doubanjiang (see my post on Fish Flavoured Eggplant for more on this)
2 tsp soy sauce
1tbsp cornflour mixed into a paste with 1tbsp water
Ground Sichuan pepper*
2 spring onions, green part only, chopped
Optional: Additional fresh birdseye chillies, chopped, if you dare
1) Boil a saucepan of water. Take it off the heat and gently slide your tofu cubes into the pan. Let this sit while you prepare and cook the other ingredients – you just want to warm it through thoroughly.
2) Heat some oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, and fry the garlic and ginger. Once these become fragrant, add the chillies if you’re using them. Then add the doubanjiang, soy sauce and stock. Stir until everything is well mixed, and taste – you may need to add some salt at this point.
3) Carefully drain the tofu and add to the frying pan. It will probably be very delicate, so continue to take care as you stir the tofu into the sauce – try not to break it up if you can help it. Add the cornflour thickener and the spring onions, and continue to stir it all gingerly until the sauce has thickened.
4) Decant the contents of the pan into your serving dish, and sprinkle it with ground Sichuan Pepper. Serve and enjoy!
* I’m afraid that, like doubanjiang, this may be another of those funky, hard-to-get ingredients. It adds a classic Sichuanese flavour to this dish, and will make your lips numb – totally worth trying to find if at all possible! Its Chinese name is ‘flower pepper’ or 花椒 huājiāo.