I chose to adopt a vegetarian diet at the age of 12, but there was one ingredient I would not touch: tofu. Mom, I love you and the effort you made to support my choice, but those mushy tofu and frozen vegetable stir fries you made when I was a teenager were the worst.
A vegan ma po tofu dish is what changed my mind. This is the story of how I came to like bean curd and stopped being a half-arsed cook.
In my earlier twenties I found myself in Beijing for a few days following a train journey across Russia and Mongolia, which preceded the worst night I have ever spent on any form of transportation ever in my life. Ever.
On the Ulan Bataar to Beijing leg of the trip we were forced to endure an overnight bus (trains were sold out) complete with bunk beds. On a bus. The daytime portion of the journey was enjoyable because I was on the bottom watching fellow passengers do monkey swings across the ceiling in order to try to maintain a static position, but once night fell the fun died too. Not only did the driver attempt at every possible bend to send us to our deaths, but it was bloody freezing.
As the approximate temperature inside the bus was negative seven thousand degrees and our coats were stowed because we didn’t expect negative seven thousand degree temperatures, I had no choice but to use the blood stained duvet provided. On a more positive note, the fact that my core body temperature also hit negative digits meant that I eventually fell into a hypothermic sleep.
Upon arrival in Beijing, disoriented, barely living, and hungry (Train travel in Russia = instant mash and pot noodles for two weeks), I grabbed my travel buddy and we set out to find food. In those days I didn't pay much attention to my meals, with little kitchen knowledge beyond opening a jar and pouring it on pasta. Keeping that in mind I’m not sure why I had made notes to seek a specific restaurant, but I'm glad I did because it was life-changing.
The restaurant was called Gong De Lin and the experience of eating there changed my relationship with food for good. I realise that makes me sound like a life coach self help nutter (you too can achieve legitimate human being status by living clutter free and buying self help books!), but honestly it was a moment.
The mind-blowingly delicious dish I ordered was what I later realised was a variation of ma po tofu, and with that I acquired a new outlook on food and an RSI (you try learning to use chopsticks for the first time with soft bean curd). I vowed to return home and learn to make my own tofu, which I did, and suddenly I was interested in what I was eating and food preparations. My happiest moments gradually shifted to time spent in the kitchen (and I also started spending more time in casualty, like the other week when I tried to cut my finger off on my partner's birthday – SURPRISE).
Anyway now that I no longer have a massive bandage on my finger and can cook again, I decided to make ma po tofu because its positive associations make it my ultimate comfort dish (also I'm out of potatoes). Here is my recipe, which admittedly changes every time I make it since I'm terrible at following even my own instructions, but it hasn't come out bad yet.
Vegan Ma Po Tofu Recipe
This vegan ma po tofu recipe isn't an exact replication of the dish I enjoyed in Beijing, but it is easy to prepare and delicious. If you don't have access to mince, omit it. Sichuan peppercorns are a deal breaker, so seek them out if you can. If you can't find them, yours tears will have to suffice as an alternative ingredient.
- 175 millilitres (¾ cup) water
- 15 millilitres (1 tablespoon) dry sherry or Shaoxing rice wine
- 10 millilitres (2 teaspoons) chilli oil
- 5 millilitres (1 teaspoon) rice vinegar
- 5 millilitres (1 teaspoon) sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon sichuan peppercorns
- ½-1 teaspoon ground chillies (optional)
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
- 50 grams (about ½ cup) vegetarian mince
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
- 2 teaspoons fermented black bean
- 2 tablespoons chilli bean paste
- 50 grams (about ½ cup) chopped spring onion, green and white parts divided
- 400 gram block soft tofu, cut into approximate 1 inch cubes
- Heat a wok or saucepan to medium heat and toast the sichuan peppercorns by stirring constantly in the dry pan until aromatic, about 30 seconds to a minute. Grind with a pestle and mortar (or use the back of a sturdy knife to pound into smaller fragments).
- In a medium bowl, mix the water, sherry, vinegar, chilli and sesame oils, cornstarch, sugar, ground sichuan peppercorns, and chillies (if using).
- Heat a wok to medium high. Add the peanut oil and the mince and stir fry for 2-3 minutes, until the mince browns.
- Add ginger and garlic, stir frying for a further 30 seconds before turning the heat to medium and adding the black beans, chilli bean paste, and the white parts of the spring onion. Stir fry for another 30-45 seconds.
- Whisk the liquid quickly and tip it into the wok, along with the pieces of tofu. Turn the heat to medium low, cover, and simmer 8-10 minutes. Season with extra salt, to taste, and serve with green parts of the spring onion sprinkled on top.
- Author: Kip Dorrell
- Servings: 2 with rice
- Cuisine: Chinese