I remember the first time I tasted Sichuan peppercorns, with their sly, sneaky heat. I could hardly believe the way the heat stayed on the tip of my tongue, a short burst of prickly warmth that died so quickly I instantly wanted another bite. I couldn’t wait to experience it again. And again. Despite my long addiction to chile peppers, I’d never encountered a sensation quite like that. This was trickster heat: fast, fleeting, intense. Like lightning, it vanished as quickly as it came. I loved it.
Sichuan peppercorns are a great addition to many dishes, but they are never more eloquent than in mapo tofu, where the bland whiteness of the tofu is the perfect foil for the peppercorns. To me mapo tofu is a classic demonstration of how a few simple ingredients can add up to much more than the sum of its parts.
Almost everybody loves mapo tofu, which means that has become the Caesar Salad of the Chinese restaurant: a great dish that is often sadly bastardized. If you want to be sure of getting a really great version of the dish, you have to make it yourself.
1. Happily, Sichuan peppercorns have recently become widely available. Unhappily, they fade fast. If you get old ones, they are likely to have given their aroma to the air and lost their sparkle. Buy them in small quantities, and toast and grind them just before you use them.
2. Use good fatty pork with flavor. The little bit of pork is more flavoring than food, but it adds great sweetness to the dish. If you’re going to use fat-free commercial pork, all it will add is a bit of gritty texture and very little else.
3. Use good chicken broth. You’re depending on the balance of flavors to turn the blandness of tofu into something wonderful. And the chicken stock is one of the crucial ingredients.
4. Hot bean sauce or hot bean paste is made from fermented soybeans and chiles, and it’s important to use a decent brand. The supermarket brand I’ve found most reliable is Lee Kum Kee.
5. Toasted sesame oil is the final splash of flavor in this dish, but give it a sniff before you use it. I’ve found that many bottles I’ve brought home from the market are already rancid (believe me, you’ll know). Be sure and store your sesame oil in the refrigerator.
Ma Po Tofu
Serves 3-4, with rice
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
¾ cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons Chinese hot bean sauce (sometimes called hot bean paste; Lee Kum Kee is a reliable brand)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons peanut, grapeseed or vegetable oil
1½ tablespoons minced garlic
1½ tablespoons minced or grated ginger
4 scallions, thinly sliced, green and white parts separated
½ pound fatty ground pork
1 12-ounce package soft tofu, drained, cut into 1-inch dice
1 splash toasted sesame oil, or to taste
Toast the Sichuan peppercorns: Toss the bright red Sichuan peppercorns into a small dry skillet and shake over a hot flame until you can begin to smell their peppery aroma. Allow to cool and grind into a powder in a spice grinder.
Prep the sauce: Stir together the chicken broth, hot bean sauce and soy sauce. In a separate small bowl, mix the cornstarch into the water until it’s a smooth slurry. Set aside.
Cook the aromatics and pork: Heat a wok until it is very hot and lightly coat with oil. Add the garlic, ginger and white parts of the scallion and stir fry until fragrant. Add the pork and stir fry until the meat loses its pinkness.
Make the sauce: Add the chicken broth mixture. Watch as it comes to a boil, add the tofu squares, and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the cornstarch mixture and stir until the liquid is thick and clear.
Finish: Throw in the green parts of the scallion, sprinkle with sesame oil and stir. Stir in some of the Sichuan peppercorn powder, to taste. Serve with rice and more Sichuan peppercorn powder on the side.