Spicy Saucy Soft Tofu (Ma-Po Tofu)
Homemade ma-po tofu, sometimes called “grandmother’s tofu” (or less flattering old-lady terms) is a revelation; when my friend Cat was so kind to prepare a meatless version it totally took me off guard, a step apart from the bland and oily restaurant versions. The woodear mushrooms are optional but add an intriguing texture to the soft, slippery tofu bathed in a garlicky spicy sauce. Soothing stuff on a cold day, it’s a simple, comforting meal to be served with boiled rice or enhanced with a pile of stir fried greens.
This is a classic Szechuan dish, minus the meat but flavored with la do ban jiang (or doubanjiang or toban djan among many spellings), a pungent, chunky fermented bean paste loaded with chiles and garlic, hot but not sweet. As you can imagine, there are endless varieties of the stuff and most should be vegan friendly. I’ve found that different brands, either in jars or cans, can vary in the degree of beany, garlic, and chile flavors. Try a few brands to see what appeals to you; in the U.S. the Lee Kum Lee brand sold in jars is a common one.
When cooking with soft tofu, it inevitably fall apart. But using a gentle hand plus a wide wooden spatula (the kind used for stir-frying and serving rice) will help keep fragile cubes of tofu from completely shattering during the stirring process.
- 1/2 cup dried black woodear mushrooms (optional)
- 2 pounds soft tofu, drained and diced into 1 inch cubes
- 3 tablespoons peanut oil or canola oil
- 6 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped
- 1/3 cup Chinese chile bean paste (called Doubanjiang
- or La do ban Jiang or toban djan)
- 2/3 cup vegetable broth or water
- 2 tablespoons Chinese shaoxing cooking wine or dry sherry
- 2 tablespoons Sriracha chile sauce (or other Asian chile sauce…as if there were any other)
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt or to taste
- 4 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
1. In a small bowl cover wood ear mushrooms with 1 inch of hot water. Let soak for 30 minutes, drain and squeeze to release any excess water. Slice into thin 1/4 inch ribbons.
2. Heat the oil in a wok or deep 12 inch stainless steel skillet over high heat; when the oil is rippling, add the garlic and stir fry for 30 seconds. Stir in the chile bean paste and fry for 1 minute. Add the tofu and the 2/3 cup of water and stir very gently with a wide wooden spatula or spoon (try not to break up the tofu too much) and simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in shaoxing wine and sliced wood ear mushrooms, cover the wok and simmer for 3 minutes. In a liquid measuring cup whisk together the 1/4 cup of water and the cornstarch.
3. Remove the lid and very gently stir in half of the cornstarch mixture. Simmer the tofu for 2 minutes, then check the consistency: it should be thickened slightly but still rather loose and similar to a stew. If the ma-po is already very thick and you want it thinner, stir in 2 to 3 tablespoons of vegetable broth or water.
If you desire a thicker ma-po tofu, stir in the remaining cornstarch sauce and simmer for another 1 to 2 minutes until further thickened. But you don’t have to use all of the cornstarch mixture…it’s not your grandma’s tofu, no matter what the name says.
4. Stir in Sriracha sauce and taste, seasoning with salt or more Sriracha if desired. Stir in thinly sliced scallions and carefully ladle tofu into a large, deep serving bowl. Serve hot with boiled rice.
Omit the woodear mushrooms. Before frying the garlic, stir-fry 1 cup of thinly sliced fresh shiitake mushroom caps with 1 tablespoon of peanut oil in the wok for 2-3 minutes until tender. Remove from wok, proceed as directed and add cooked mushrooms along with the tofu.