Long, long ago, there lived a pockmarked old lady in Sichuan, China who came up with a good tofu dish. Lest you think I’m being rude by calling a poor senior citizen names, I assure you, I have no choice in the matter. My hands are tied; that is what the dish is named!
The dish of course is ma po tofu, a luscious tofu-blocks dish with a spicy brown gel around it, flecked with red chili and other unidentifiable stuff. ‘Ma’ = pockmarked and ‘po’ = old lady. I have eaten and enjoyed this dish at many restaurants (some more than others) and tried to recreate it at home. The problem of course is that not being Chinese myself, my usual skill at recipe-divining that works fine for Indian food, flops miserably for Chinese food.
But do I give up that easily? Not I, she said evenly. Here is my version which has actually turned out to be a easy and yummy option for week night dinners, that according to my husband tastes quite Chinese, but also quite Indian, but not Burmese at all (Burma — which lies between India and China — often has cuisine that tastes like a cross between both). This dish is from quite a different border between India and China, very far away from Burma indeed; a nexus, if you want to call it that. Geographically that nexus lies in California.
It is very good but not too much like ma po tofu at all. It is all in the perception. In that sense this dish is quite postmodern. Therefore I call it
- Firm tofu block, about 14 oz — I use Wildwood sprouted
- 2 – 3 tablespoons oil
- 1 oz mung bean thread noodles, dried (about half a bag)
- Quarter cup raw peanuts
- Half cup chicken broth
- Quarter cup rice wine, sherry, vermouth or white wine
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon chili-garlic sauce, I use Lee Kum Kee
Dry the tofu block with a paper towel and cut it neatly into blocks. To do this, stand it on one edge, and make two vertical cuts first, to divide the tofu into three equal slices. Then place the slices horizontally on a cutting board, stacked one on top of the other, then give it three vertical cuts to divide the tofu into four longitudinal sections. Now give the tofu block a quarter turn and repeat the three vertical cuts to make blocks.
Heat two tablespoons of oil in a non-stick pan. Fry the tofu blocks on medium-high heat, about 3 minutes on each side. I needed to do this in two batches; one doesn’t want to overcrowd the tofu in the pan. Ideally one crisps up each block on all 6 sides; but two be honest I only have the patience to crisp up the two widest faces. That seems to be quite enough.
For the second batch, you may need to drizzle another half to one tablespoon oil on the pan. Remove the crisped up tofu blocks onto a plate. In the same pan, roast the peanuts for a few minutes till they look a little browned. Remove onto the same plate.
Meanwhile, soak the mung bean threads in hot water for five minutes to soften them. Also prepare the sauce thusly: In a bowl, combine the following ingredients: chicken broth, wine, soy sauce, chili paste, cornstarch. Stir it well to dissolve the cornstarch.
Now that your three-legume brigade is ready (tofu, peanuts and mung bean threads are all derived from legume seeds), put all three of them into the pan, pour the sauce around, and heat while stirring till the mixture gels and turns shiny. Coat all ingredients with the sauce. Garnish, if you like, with any green herbs — I have used scallions, basil, cilantro; but in this example I went with arugula.