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NOT YOUR HONKIE STYLE COMFORT FOOD - MAPO TOFU WITH PORK
Comfort food. I have learned that everyone has their own opinion of what that might be. Years ago I thought it meant like meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Later I learned that the meatloaf is not as much the usual comfort food as I first assumed. So what is?
That certainly will depend on whom you might ask at any given time. Now I might be a honkie, but I am without question not your usual honkie as I find much more at home with "ethic" foods than I do with "American" cuisine. And as for "American", I would mean just the USA and probably Canada and not anywhere south of the border.
Comfort food is that particular meal or meals that you dream about, you request as your last meal on Earth, or you can always fall back to and it always makes you happy.
Rather than meatloaf and mashed potatoes, one of the immediate meals I think of is slow-roasted turkey, home-made gravy and jasmine rice. Lotsa, lotsa gravy, please!
One of the other comfort foods that quickly comes to mind and makes me want to have it all the time is an authentic version of Mapo Tofu. I still remember the first time I had a version of this when I was still a rookie learning Asian foods.
It was at the China House on South Broadway in what is now the Gothic Theater's parking lot. The little building is still there! Kay, the owner of the China House retired and moved back to China.
Kay had her own way of making Mapo Tofu and it was a great version to get me started on the experience of savoring the textures of very soft tofu blending with the softness of fresh ground pork sauteed in peanut oil, mince green onions, a little garlic and a hint of chili peppers. (I do not remember it to have any broad bean paste, but I could be wrong.) Probably the first time I had this dish was around 1982.
Over the years since I had on and offs times with this unique dish simply because I had never learned to cook it myself. Last year I started thinking about this dish again and decided to hunt out the authentic version in Denver.
In order to seek out the authentic version, one must first learn what the authentic ingredients are and how is it is properly prepared. So I started to research this on the net and once I started to hunt, I found some very authentic recipes on video on YouTube.
Yes, there are many versions out there now, especially if you go to a Chinese restaurant that is not authentically Sichuan. Sichuan is one of China's regions known for its especially fiery cuisine. This is so with the true Mapo Tofu.
The two main ingredients that truly make this Mapo Tofu is the Sichuan Red Chili Peppercorn and Pi Xian Broad Bean Paste. First the peppercorns.
These are not actually peppercorns but the seed pods of the Red Ash or Prickly Ash trees grown in various types throughout Asia. It is known for not really having a "hot" feeling, but rather it numbs and tingles the mouth. In the Sichuan Province, it is used oftentimes with true peppercorns and chilis to make for a very unusual and memorial experience in their cuisine.
If you have a decent-sized Chinese store in town, you ought to be able to find these there. If not, Yamibuy is recommended by yours truly.
Without the use of these special "peppercorns" authentic Mapo Tofu can not be made. The same can be said for the Pi Xian Broad Bean Paste. The real McCoy is difficult to find I have learned.
Between the large supermarket sized Asians stores in Denver, I can usually always find what I am looking for and I regularly shop at the Pacific Ocean Market and the Viet Hoa Market. That pretty much covers everything Chinese and Vietnamese in Metro Denver.
I was not able to find real Pixian Broad Bean Paste in Denver! That is when I discovered YamiBuy. (Yes, Yamibuy did not exist until I discovered it. Hey, I have Italian in me, what can I say?)
This broad bean paste is known as Doubanjiang, and the Pixian version is one of the three types used in the Sichuan Province. To put it to more simpler terms, this is a paste made from fermented fava beans, fresh chili peppers, a little wheat flour, and salt. It is one of the essential ingredients of Sichuan cooking.
Once you have these two special and quite necessary ingredients, you should be able to get the rest of what you need quite easily.
When I make a batch of Mapo Tofu, I make enough for several meals, as it keeps quite well in a very cold refrigerator. Usually, there's always jasmine rice in the frig too, so a quick and easy meal is available at the moment's notice of a stomach growl.
The following are the ingredients that I use for my Mapo Tofu:
Two containers of soft or silken tofu
1/2 to 3/4 pound of fresh ground pork
Around 3 large tablespoons of Doubanjiang
Around 1 1/2 tablespoons of dou-chi or fermented black bean (paste or roughly chop the beans)
Several tablespoons of Sichuan peppercorns
One tablespoon of black peppercorns
One teaspoon salt
Two tablespoons of light soy sauce
Eight to ten ounces of organic chicken stock
Four to six scallions finely chopped, both the green and white parts
Four to six cloves of garlic finely chopped
Several tablespoons of freshly grated or chopped ginger
One to two tablespoons of red chili paste
4 Tablespoons or so of cooking oil
2 Tablespoons of sesame oil
2 Tablespoons of tapioca or corn starch
Sometimes I will substitute the ground pork with ground turkey. And if I happen to have a very ripe mango, I will dice it up and add it in while braising the pork or turkey.
The very first step of this meal is to prepare your tofu! Open the containers and drain the liquid from them. Have two dinner plates each with one full-size paper towel laying on them at the ready. Place each container's tofu wedge on top of the paper towel on the plate. Then fold each paper towel to cover the pieces of tofu. Take one of the paper-covered tofu pieces and place in next to the other piece of tofu. Center the two pieces on that plate and then cover them with the empty plate.
This is an old Asian trick to take the extra moisture from the tofu, so this needs to be done first in order to give the tofu time to rest. Now start a large pot of water with a teaspoon or so of salt.
The second step is to take your Sichuan and black peppercorns and gently heat them up in your wok. Once you notice the aroma and see the peppercorns leave tiny black dots of oil on the wok, you know they are ready for the next step. Grind them up in your spice grinder and have them at the ready.
Put the fire back on the wok and heat up your oil and then add some of the peppercorns you just ground up and then add the pork or turkey and half of the sesame oil. As that is simmering away, add just some of the chopped scallions, garlic, and ginger to the mix. After a few minutes push the mixture to either side, front and back, leaving an empty space along the center of the wok.
Once the water for the tofu has come to a boil, turn down to a simmer.
In that space, you will add your bean and chili pastes (be sure they have been chopped well). Also toss in a little more ginger, garlic, scallions, and the rest of the sesame oil. Let that heat in the middle of the wok and simmer those ingredients nicely.
Once that has cooked into a fragrant aroma incorporate the ground pork and the bean and chili pastes together in the wok, getting it all well mixed. Then add the light soy sauce and the chicken broth and turn up the heat enough to it is all lightly boiling.
Bring down the heat and let it all simmer for a couple of minutes and then toss in more of the peppercorn mix, saving the last of it to sprinkle on top of your bowl of Mapo Tofu.
Turn the heat back up on the Tofu water and go to the paper-covered tofu and you will see that it is sitting in a pool of water. Take the paper carefully off each piece of tofu, sitting on the top plate. With a kitchen knife slice the two pieces in half height-wise first and then across the sides in three pieces and then the same the other way.
Now carefully side the cut pieces of tofu into the rapidly boiling salted water. The salt helps to keep the tofu from absorbing water. Once you see the water/folm rising, turn down the heat and lift off the lid for a moment.
After some of the tofu has been coming to the top of the pot for about two minutes it is time to carefully drain the tofu out of the pot and into the wok.
Gently push and pull the mixture to be with a large wok spatula being careful not to break up the tofu. Allow this to simmer for several minutes while carefully mixing it all together.
I prefer to garnish with basil and cilantro. Served on top of Jasmine rice.
Let's me know how your Mapo Tofu comes out. I would love to hear about it.
PS... Though you saw a lime in the images, I did not use one, nor does the original recipe call for lime. However, I did forget to add the Light Soy Sauce right after adding the chicken stock, which is when it is usually added.
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