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Ma Po Tofu
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Ma Po Tofu

As I pointed out in our March 27 dissertation on tofu, this Asian soybean staple (sometimes translated as "bean curd") wins points for its flexibility. White in color, soft in texture and delicate (let's not say "bland") in flavor, its greatest culinary strength may be the way that it easily picks up the flavors of whatever sauce it's in.

Most of us in the Western world think of tofu as a vegetarian specialty, a substitute for meat that vegans choose in place of chicken or shrimp in their stir-fries.

But take a closer look at tofu's place in Asian cuisine and you'll often find it working as a partner with meat, poultry or fish, adding another texture and flavor component that builds appealing complexity in a dish.

One of my favorite tofu dishes marries tofu and pork in a tasty relationship that brings me back for more: Ma Po Tofu, which translates as the earthy "Pock-marked grandmother's bean curd," presumably in eternal memory of an acne-scarred chef who first created it.

This version has been in my repertoire for so long that it has evolved into something that's probably less than fully authentic. But it's reasonably quick ... and it's good. (If I wanted to convert this dish into a vegetarian version, I would omit the pork, perhaps adding a similar amount of chopped onions or onions and bell peppers to provide a vaguely similar texture, and substitute vegetable broth or water for the chicken broth. Another approach might be to use soy-based vegetarian sausage meat in place of the pork, although the strong sage or fennel flavors that infuse these products might make the results a bit odd.)

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

2 tablespoons (30 grams) Chinese hot brown bean sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine or dry Sherry
2 large cloves garlic
1 inch (2 1/2 cm) fresh ginger root
Hot sauce or dried red-pepper flakes (optional)
2 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil
8 oz. (250 grams) ground pork
1 cup (250 ml) chicken broth
8 oz. tofu, preferably firm or extra-firm
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon (10 grams) sesame oil
1 teaspoon Szechwan peppercorns
3 green onions (scallions)


1. Because stir-frying goes quickly, it's always best to get your ingredients prepared, chopped and assembled and have your rice steaming before you go to the wok. Begin by organizing the flavor ingredients. Measure out hot bean sauce (available in small cans in Asian markets) and stir in the soy sauce and Sherry. Mince 1 garlic clove and peel and mince 1/2 inch of the ginger, and stir them into the bean sauce, reserving the rest of the garlic and ginger. Add hot sauce or red-pepper flakes to taste, if desired.

2. Measure out the broth; dissolve the cornstarch in a bit of cool water; chop two of the scallions, reserving the third. Toast and grind the Szechwan peppercorns in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. I do this periodically and keep the results handy in an airtight jar. (Availability: In recent years there have been problems with import restrictions on this product, and it may be difficult to find. If you must, substitute black pepper, but the unusual tingly-spicy quality of the real thing is worth seeking out.)

3. Cut the tofu into 1/2-inch dice, and put them in a skillet or shallow pan with water to cover. Put in the remaining scallion, garlic clove and piece of ginger, and bring up just to a bare simmer. Leave to poach while you finish the rest of the dish.

4. Now you're ready to start stir-frying. Heat your wok over a high flame until it's hot enough that a splash of water turns instantly into dancing droplets. Put in the oil. Add the ground pork and fry quickly, stirring and breaking up the lumps. As soon as the pork loses its raw color, stir in the hot bean sauce mix. Then add the broth and turn down to a simmer. Drain the warmed tofu, discard the garlic, ginger and scallion, and gently stir the tofu into the wok. Thicken with the corn starch, and gently stir in the Szechwan pepper and half of the chopped scallion. Turn off heat and transfer to a serving bowl, garnishing with the remaining scallions and a drizzle of sesame oil. Steaming white rice and a salad completes the meal.

WINE MATCH: It's almost a cliche - and not a particularly good one - to match spicy Asian fare with Gewurztraminer. I usually recommend Riesling instead, finding it one of the rare wines that can tame the exotic and fiery flavors of the hotter Asian cuisines from Szechwan to Thailand and beyond. But another variable in this equation is gentle sweetness, it seems. A bone-dry Australian Riesling from Wirra Wirra, although a delightful wine in its own right, seemed to accentuate the heat of the dish rather than moderating it. Next time I'll choose an off-dry German Riesling instead.

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No, the other right

As several of you kindly pointed out in E-mail, I carelessly reversed my directions in the caption under the photo of three salmon steaks in the HTML/graphics edition of last week's FoodLetter. As I hope the context made clear, the Copper River salmon was the dark-red piece on the right. Yes, THAT right, not the other one.

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Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Copper River salmon: Worth the hype? (June 5)

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Thursday, June 12, 2003
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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