There’s a sacred little list of dishes that everyone can cook, and everyone has their own little spin on. Scrambled eggs, bolognaise pasta sauce, chilli, and the perfect chocolate shake come to mind. Then there are the dishes that I count as the unsung heroes of this everyman’s culinary hall of fame.
Enter the dragon: Ma Po Tofu – Iron Chef Chinese’s signature dish. Meat, tofu, spice, and sauce. It ticks all the boxes. If I ran a cooking class for kitchen-incompetent bachelors, this would be way early on in the course. You can make it as spicy or mild as you like, you can chop & change your meat, your mix of spices, seasonings and sauces could outnumber the Colonel’s, or you could keep it really simple. Straight up, every gwai lo should know how to cook this. It might even go so far as to make suburban Chinese restaurants more interesting places.
First, you’re going to need some basics – with these in your pantry, you can throw together the foundations of nice simple, healthy Cantonese food, and with the right spice additions, you’ve got the foundations of Szechuan cuisine as well. Head to your nearest Asian grocery store, and buy these absolute essentials:
- Light soy sauce
- Dark Soy Sauce
- Oyster Sauce
- Sesame Oil
Also, get a rice cooker. Just do it.
For this recipe, (and for branching out and getting adventurous in general) you’ll need:
- Hoi sin sauce
- Black bean sauce
- Szechuan chilli paste (which is insanely hard to get here in Paris, so I use what I can find – it’s a chilli & garlic paste. Works well.)
- Szechuan peppers
- Chilli oil (I make my own by buying dried chilli flakes and putting them in a jar with canola or peanut oil and a clove of garlic, but I’m pretty sure you can buy the dim sum stuff in a jar.
You’re also going to need the following fresh stuff (quantities here will probably serve 2 normal people if you have another dish as well as rice, or one really hungry bastard.)
- 3 spring onions (scallions)
- 5 garlic shoots/garlic flower stems/garlic chives (they’re often labelled differently – you’re looking for the round green ones, often taped together in a bundle, often with the flower bud still attached at the top.
- 1 small red chilli
- About 1 hamburger patty-sized amount of minced beef (Iron Chef Chen uses pork. I find beef enriches the spiciness)
- 1 block of firm tofu
- Cornflour (about a couple of teaspoons in half a cup of COLD water – even warm water will cook it and make glue like day-old gravy)
- 1 pint chicken stock
Ready? Let’s get busy. Put a pot of salted water on to boil, and grab yourself a drink. Best to either crack a beer or pour yourself a white wine or champagne – you’ll need to share a splash with the wok a little later.
First things first, we need to do all of our chopping. Finely chop enough of the garlic shoots to almost fill an espresso cup. Finely chop the same quantity of the white and light green sections of the spring onion. Take the dark green section of the spring onion and roughly chop sections as long as one of your finger knuckles – enough to fill a rice bowl. Squeeze the seeds out of the chilli, and chop a few slices finely. This is kind of the “know your enemy” part. If you know your own chilli taste/tolerance, and you’re familiar with the kinds of chillies you normally use, it should be easy. If not, start with a tiny quantity, keep it separate from the other fresh ingredients and add it to taste. Lastly, chop the tofu block into pieces. I normally make rectangular prisms 2cm x 2cm x 3cm. Is that water boiling yet? Tofu goes in. Give it a few minutes, then take it out & drain it.
Ok, time for the hot stuff. Fire up the wok, and heat up a couple of spoonfuls of sesame oil with a handful of szechuan peppers. Once it gets nice and fragrant, pour that off into a little bowl and throw away the peppercorns – you’ll need it later. Brown the meat in the oil left in the wok. Break it all up so it’s nice & crumbly. Once it’s brown, add your sauces. A little splash of each kind of soy, a dollop of oyster, hoi sin and black bean, and a couple of spoonfuls of the chilli paste. Once that’s all stirred through the meat, either push it to one side of the wok or make a well in the middle. Pour in some of your szechuan pepper oil and some chilli oil, then add your pale spring onions & garlic shoots so they get a quick fry in the oil. This would be a good time to add the chopped chillies as well if you’re that way inclined. Once they’ve had a quick sizzle, stir it all together. Now you can add the tofu and gently turn it through, then pour in the chicken stock. Throw in a splash of your drink, and let it start reducing. High heat is fine – this is violent kung-fu wok Chinese food, not cooked-for-hours French food! Put your rice cooker on now.
Once it’s reduced to a level where the meat & tofu are well and truly sticking out of the soupy mix (this should take about as long as the rice cooker, unless you’re cooking loads of rice…), add the dark green spring onions and turn them through until they start to soften. Swirl in the cornflour mix and stir it until the sauce thickens.
Serve it in Chinese white & blue porcelain bowls over fluffy hot steamed jasmine rice, and for god’s sake, use chopsticks.