I made this for a vegan who came to dinner the other night; it is shamelessly lifted from the Queen of Chinese cooking, Fuchsia Dunlop. Ross had it in Beijing and declared it the most delicious thing, so I found this recipe for him. Despite not being able to get neither proper Sichuan chilli bean paste nor fermented black beans, I found that with the simple substitutions of ordinary hot chilli bean sauce/paste – but look out for additives such as sugar, MSG etc in the small print – and a mixture of ordinary black beans plus some fermented bean paste, the taste seemed a good approximation of the real thing. As my guest didn’t like hot food I left out the extra chillies! To make the roasted Sichuan peppercorns, simply dry fry in a pan until aromatic and then pound in a pestle and mortar. It looks long-winded but it is amazingly easy – again it’s all about the preparation: lay everything out before you start to cook! Delicious.
Ma Po tofu - Sichuan style
500–600 grams (1.1 – 1.3 lbs) plain medium/firm tofu – must be able to slice it!
4 baby leeks or spring onions, green parts only
4 tbsp cooking oil
1 tbsp of fermented black beans, rinsed and drained, or fermented black bean paste
2½ tbsp Sichuan chilli bean paste or ordinary chilli bean paste, but with no additives
2 tsp ground red chillies (optional)
1 tbsp finely chopped ginger
1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
100ml stock or water
¼ tsp ground white pepper
2 tsp corn flour mixed with 2 tbsp of cold water
½ tsp ground roasted Sichuan pepper
Cut tofu into 2 cm cubes and place in a pan of very hot, salted water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients (do not let the water boil or the tofu will become tough).
Finely slice the green parts of the baby leeks or spring onions, diagonally.
Heat wok, add oil and reduce heat to medium. Add chilli paste and fry until oil is a rich red colour and smells fragrant. Then add black beans and ground chillies (if using). Stir fry for a few seconds then add garlic and ginger. Take care not to overcook seasonings, reduce heat if necessary and let seasonings sizzle until the sauce is rich and fragrant.
Remove the tofu from water with a perforated spoon, shake out excess water and add gently to the sauce, pushing the tofu gently through the sauce and taking care not to break up the tofu.
Add stock or water, white pepper and salt and mix gently, bring to a gentle boil and let simmer for a few minutes until tofu has absorbed the flavours of the sauce.
Add the leek slices now (if you are using them) and simmer until they are tender, then gradually add as much of the cornflour mixture as needed until the sauce thickens and clings nicely to the tofu. If you are using spring onion greens, add these now and stir them gently through the tofu and sauce.
Pour tofu into a bowl, sprinkle with Sichuan pepper and serve with rice and greens. I served with a Vegetarian Pad Thai and some steamed pak choi with ginger.