Stalking the Waiter

Riffing on foods, flavors and methods, that would be telling.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Ma Po Dofu, Riffing

After that vegan curry the other day, I had a taste for more tofu. More tofu with avocado. They're such a good contrast, smooth and mild against firm and tangy. Before I moved last year, I had an avocado tree in the yard. And they were the smoothest, most divine avocados I ever had. I really miss that. And the lemon tree next to the back deck. And the neighbor's orange tree. And the other neighbors apricot and loquat trees. And my plum trees. You know, I was living right on the edge of downtown San Jose and had more fresh produce available in my and my neighbors' yards than I do now, and I'm living in the country. Something wrong there.

Anyway, in thinking about what to do with the tofu today, I decided that I'd make a modified Ma Po Dofu. Well, that's where it started. Looking at the recipe and seeing Sichuan peppercorns, I thought about Hot and Sour Soup, which also uses them. So, a soupy Ma Po Dofu? Or a Hot & Sour MPD? Then, too, I had neither pork nor beef thawed, but I did have a chicken I had intended to roast. Hmmm.

As an aside, there's a fun article about Sichuan cooking and it's heat here. It's author, Ted Anthony, grew up in Singapore, so was accustomed to very spicy food at an early age. He chronicles his search for the ultimate in mouth numbing pain, in the Sichuan Province of China.

Back to my riffing. What if it were an Italian H&SS? Red wine vinegar or balsamico instead of white cider vinegar? Maybe some egg noodles instead of bamboo shoots. Cayenne instead of white pepper or Sichuan peppercorns? Or red pepper infused olive oil (like this or this, or make your own) instead of Hot Sesame Oil or Chile Oil to float on the top? My mouth was watering. But...but...what happened to my Ma Po Dofu?

I'll tell you what happened. I remembered I had some leftover, cooked, boneless pork loin. I took a piece of that and used the family machete* to cut it into shoestrings - not quite the same as ground pork, but it wasn't bad and I liked the shoestring shape.

* It's huge and was custom made for my mother. I'll put up a pic of it one of these days when I figure the whole image thing out.

Most of these ingredients are available in the International or Gourmet aisles of your supermarket, if you don't have an Asian market nearby.

Tip: When you're using an unfamiliar condiment or flavoring ingredient for the first time, rather than just throwing it in and hoping for the best, taste it first. The best way to do this is to treat it as it will be treated in the recipe. For example, the Hot Bean Paste will be diluted by broth, so, warm a little broth, or even water, and put a tiny dab of the Paste into it. Now, taste the broth. This will let you know how hot it is and any nuances of flavor, e.g., sweet or salty, it might have. Sesame Oil or Hot Chile Oil are usually poured over the finished dish. So, float a little on some warmed broth and take a sip. You'll feel much braver about trying new things if you know what to expect from them.


  • 1 package of firm tofu, cut into 3/4" cubes

  • 2-3 Tbsp. peanut oil

  • 2-3 cloves garlic, crushed or chopped very fine

  • 1/4 pound cooked, boneless pork, cut in shoestrings

  • 1 or 2 green onions (scallions) sliced thin, on the diagonal

  • 1-3 tsp. Hot Bean Paste (use Chile Paste if you can't find this, and add a pinch of sugar)

  • 1-3 Tbsp. Kikkoman Lite Soy Sauce

  • 1 can (14 oz.) broth - divided

  • 2 tsp. cornstarch (mixed with 3 oz. of the broth)

  • Garnishes/condiments: Sesame Oil (the dark, toasted kind), crushed Sichuan Peppercorns, sliced avocado

Notes: I like my green onions fresh and crisp, so I add them and the pork at the end, after the mixture has thickened. Likewise, the Sichuan peppercorns may be too much for some folks, so I put a bowl on the table for those who want to sprinkle some on their serving. Sesame Oil does not take well to a lot of cooking, so, I almost always treat it as a condiment. I call for Kikkoman Lite Soy because I really love the flavor of it, and it's less salty than many.

By all means, start on the lower end of the Bean Paste and Soy Sauce measurements if you're unsure of how hot or salty you want this. You can always taste it and add more once you've added the broth. The process goes quickly because the pork is already cooked, so, it's only a matter of heating the tofu through and getting the broth hot enough, long enough to thicken it.

When all ingredients are prepped and measured:

  1. Heat oil in a sauté pan or wok over high heat until it just starts to smoke.

  2. Stir in the hot bean paste and garlic.

  3. Add the tofu and soy sauce, using a spatula or other flat utensil, flip it carefully and keep it moving for perhaps a minute.

  4. Add the broth. It will hiss and steam if the pan is hot enough. If not, bring it to a boil.

  5. Add the broth-cornstarch mixture gradually, keeping it all moving so it doesn't lump.

  6. When the sauce is thickened, add the green onions and shoestring pork.

Serve alongside cooked rice, with a few avocado slices per plate, with the other garnishes available.


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