A Little Respect for the Pock-marked Old Woman

For several years now I’ve had a lovely little thing going with Mapo tofu, that quintessentially Sichuan dish of chilies, tofu, and minced pork. In truth, it’s difficult to narrow down just what about it appeals to me: bold flavors, wonderful textural contrasts, and its simplicity are all points in its favor. Of course, there’s more than that happening in a dish of the stuff. What every truly great dish has – and Mapo tofu is surely one of the great dishes of Chinese or even world cuisine – is a good background story. Without that, it would still be wonderful but it wouldn’t be great.

Sometime late in the Qing Dynasty, according to various stories, a widow known as Old Lady Chen ran an inn on the outskirts of Chengdu. Author and expert in Sichuan cuisine Fuchsia Dunlop writes Old Lady Chen was the wife of the restaurateur who owned the inn. In any case, her customers were the laborers and poor merchants who couldn’t afford to stay at the nicer places in the center of town. Her own story was no less poignant, however. Her face was ravaged with the scars of small pox and she was forced to live outside the city as a result.

Serve Mapo tofu over freshly steamed rice.

The inn was located between a tofu maker and a butcher who specialized in lamb. Some of Old Lady Chen’s customers were cooking oil merchants and so she combined the three ingredients along with the chilies that are so popular in Sichuanese cooking to produce a dish that gained notoriety. Stories say Mapo tofu became so popular people traveled long distances just to try it. Given what she must have had to endure as a result of her scars, it’s nice to think she enjoyed both prosperity and respect as a result.

The name of the dish, incidentally, is taken directly from Old Lady Chen. Ma is short for “mazi” which means pock-marked as a result of small pox. “Po” means “old woman”. Put them together and you have Pock-marked Old Woman’s Tofu. The name belies the great pleasure of the dish; yet another contrast.

Mapo tofu is a sensual adventure: crisp morsels of pork pair up with soft, smooth tofu in an oily – but not greasy – bright, red sauce. The spicy but gentle burn of chili stands up against the blandness of the tofu although neither is overwhelmed or overwhelming. In fact, the heat of the chilies is a perfect complement to the unassuming flavor of the tofu. In this particular dish, tofu doesn’t need to be fried beforehand or marinated in anything to give it flavor. It readily absorbs the chili-laden oil that forms the framework of the sauce but it isn’t saturated. In a way, the deep flavors of the sauce really allow the tofu to present itself simply for what it is and it comes off beautifully. Once the dish is finished cooking, ground Sichuan pepper is sprinkled across, leaving the diner with a pleasant, tingling sensation on her lips as she eats.

Good tofu, in this particular case, is essential and we’re fortunate in San Francisco to have a very good tofu producer.

I rarely order Mapo tofu in restaurants anymore because it is so often disappointing. Typically, the heat is toned down far too much and the beautiful textural contrasts seem to disappear in kitchens used to churning out generic Chinese food for non-Chinese customers. Even in restaurants that cater almost exclusively to Chinese tastes, however, I’ve found the Mapo tofu to be less than compelling and, in some cases, loaded with ingredients – such as peas – which have no business being there.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe is easily the most authentic, but like any recipe when it appears in a different kitchen, I’ve altered it a bit to fit my tastes. Dunlop calls for the more traditional beef (not lamb!) but I find that beef doesn’t stand up as well to the pungent demands of the chili sauce as well as pork. I typically use scallions rather than leeks and, rather than dried Sichuanese chilies, I use Korean chili flakes, called koch’u karu. I frequently make kimchi so I almost always have an abundance of them on hand.

1 block firm tofu
4-6 scallions
½ cup peanut oil
4 ounces minced pork
2-3 tablespoons Sichuanese chili bean paste
1 heaping tablespoon fermented black beans
1 tablespoon coarse ground dried chilies
1 cup chicken stock
2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon Shao Xing rice wine
4 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 6 tablespoons of cold water
1 teaspoon ground, roasted Sichuan peppercorns

  • Cut the bean curd into ¾ inch cubes and let steep in hot water to warm them up before they go into the wok.
  • Slice the scallions on the bias into 1 ½-inch lengths (I usually mince the white ends and add them to the dish early in the cooking).
  • In a hot wok, add all the oil and then the minced pork, letting it fry until it’s crisp but not dried out.
  • Reduce the heat to medium and add the chili bean paste and ground chilies, stir frying them for about 30 seconds until the oil turns a vibrant red (I usually add the chopped scallion whites at this point). Add the fermented black beans and cook for another 30 seconds.
  • Pour in the stock, the soy sauce, and the rice wine. Now add the drained tofu, folding it carefully into the meat and oil mixture to avoid breaking up the cubes. Simmer over low heat for about five minutes, allowing the tofu to absorb the various flavors.
  • Add the scallions, stirring them into the sauce, and then – in two or three doses – add the cornstarch, stirring it gently into the mixture until the sauce begins to thicken, clinging to the cubes of tofu and meat.
  • Sprinkle with the ground Sichuan pepper corns, stir again, and serve.

    With rice, serves two generously and four quite adequately.

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One Response to “A Little Respect for the Pock-marked Old Woman”

  1. Meet My Friend, the Center-Cut Pork Chop « Slim Young Parsnip Says:

    […] I use that cut of pork for other things as well, particularly when I want to mince my own pork for Mapo tofu, for instance. I rarely want more than a quarter pound of meat for that particular dish and the […]

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