Ma po dou fu is named after the smallpox-scarred wife of a Qing Dynasty restaurateur. She is said to have prepared this spicy, aromatic, oily dish for laborers who laid down their loads of cooking oil to eat lunch on their way to the city’s markets. It’s one of the most famous Sichuan dishes and epitomizes Sichuan’s culinary culture, with its fiery peasant cooking and bustling private restaurants. Many unrecognizable imitations are served in Chinese restaurants worldwide, but this is the real thing, as taught at the Sichuan provincial cooking school and served in the Chengdu restaurants named after Old Mother Chen. The Sichuan pepper will make your lips tingle pleasantly, and the tender bean curd will slip down your throat. It’s rich and warming, a perfect winter dish.
This recipe traditionally uses a scattering of ground beef, which is unusual in Sichuan cooking, where pork is the most common meat. Sometimes the beef is precooked and added to the main dish at the last minute to preserve its crispness. Vegetarians may omit the meat altogether and still enjoy the dish. The traditional vegetable ingredient is suan miao, the long, narrow Chinese leeks, but scallions are often used as a substitute if no leeks are available. You can reduce the amount of cooking oil if you wish (as little as 3 tablespoons will work), although it’s traditional to serve this dish with a good layer of chile-red oil on top. For the deepest ruby-red color, use real Sichuan chili bean paste and ground Sichuanese chiles. Ma po dou fu is usually served heartily in a bowl, rather than on a plate.
(Serves 2–3 as a main course with one vegetable dish and rice, 4 with three other dishes)
1 block bean curd (about 1 pound)
4 baby leeks or 2 leeks
1/2 cup peanut oil
6 ounces ground beef
2 1/2 tablespoons Sichuanese chili bean paste
1 tablespoon fermented black beans
2 teaspoons ground Sichuanese chiles (only for chile fiends)
1 cup everyday stock or chicken stock
1 teaspoon white sugar
2 teaspoons light soy sauce salt to taste
4 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 6 tablespoons cold water
1/2 teaspoon ground roasted
Cut the bean curd into 1-inch cubes and leave to steep in very hot or gently simmering water that you have lightly salted. Slice the leeks at a steep angle into thin “horse ear” slices 1 1/2 inches long.
Season the wok, then add the peanut oil and heat over a high flame until smoking. Add the minced beef and stir-fry until it is crispy and a little brown, but not yet dry.
Turn the heat down to medium, add the chili bean paste and stir-fry for about 30 seconds, until the oil is a rich red color. Add the fermented black beans and ground chiles and stir-fry for another 20–30 seconds until they are both fragrant and the chiles have added their color to the oil.
Pour in the stock, stir well, and add the drained bean curd. Mix it in gently by pushing the back of your ladle or wok scoop gently from the edges to the center of the wok—do not stir or the bean curd may break up. Season with the sugar, a couple of teaspoons of soy sauce, and salt to taste. Simmer for about 5 minutes, until the bean curd has absorbed the flavors of the sauce.
Add the leeks or scallions and gently stir in. When they are just cooked, add the cornstarch mixture in two or three stages, mixing well, until the sauce has thickened enough to cling glossily to the meat and bean curd. Don’t add more than you need. Finally, pour everything into a deep bowl, scatter with the ground Sichuan pepper, and serve.
Reprinted from Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop. Copyright © 2001 by Fuchsia Dunlop. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.