Shakespeare knew what he was about when in Romeo and Juliet, he said "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet". And I am not even talking about roses or love here. What I am talking about is Ma Po Tofu which roughly translates to 'Pock Marked Old Woman Tofu' and is a dreadful name for an absolutely delicious dish.
In fact it one of our all time favorite meals at home.
This is one meal that of all places conjures up memories of one of the most unlikely of places in the world for me ~ Port Douglas just off the coast of Cairns in Australia, a hopping point to the Great Barrier Reefs.
You see, as a student in Australia, I was determined to see as much of the country even if that meant working multiple jobs while keeping my grades up & putting in all-nighters for parties (some times not quite in that order).
One fine day walking along campus I came across an advert by a group of students looking for a 5th person to join them for a trip to the Great Barrier Reefs. The group consisted of 3 girls & 1 guy all of whom were Singaporean.
At that point, with the exception of knowing that Lee Kwan Yiew was the Senior Minister of Singapore, that it was a pristine country with tough rule encforced upon it's citizens, I knew very little about this country.
You know what they say in life, that all we see are dots on a surface and we don't really see how they're going to connect? Well, it's true.
Little did I know that during this chance meeting that two things my parents knocked well & good into me - a true appreciation for authentic Chinese cuisine (Cantonese) & mad chop stick skills since the age of 5 was going to begin to pay off big time nearly two decades later.
As we sat in a little hole-in-the-wall Cantonese place in the town of Port Douglas, we ate one of the most memorable meals of my life - salt baked whole chicken, Kang Kong leafy greens with garlic and Ma Po Tofu.
One bite and I was hooked!
This spicy meat and tofu dish from the Sichuan province famous for its ma la peppers was lip smackingly delicious and I couldn't get enough! The meal was also the beginning of some pretty special friendships that carried on, when not so far in the future my life would take me to Singapore on a more permanent basis.
Affection for both the food and my friends at that table have thrived right along with this recipe.
What you need to know before you fix this dish ~
There is no subsitute for Chilli Soybean paste or Sichuan peppers. Also omitting these ingredients will give you anything but Ma Po tofu - think a blah pork and tofu stir fry.
It is easily available in Asian stores - Chinese as well as Korean. Get to it, folks!
Recipe for Ma Po Tofu | Sichuan Style Spicy Pork with Silken Tofu
Shopping list | Serves 4-6
1 lb ground pork
2 packets of approx 12 oz each, silken tofu
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup soy sauce
4 tbs chili-soybean paste (Doubanjiang)
1-1/2 tsp crushed Sichuan peppercorns 2 garlic cloves
5 green onions (1 bunch)
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbs cornstarch + 2 tbs water
3/4 cup chicken stock
cilantro leaves for garnish
Before beginning to work on any of the other ingredients, prepare the tofu.
Silken Tofu - Using a knife slash the tofu into cubes. Empty both packets into a sieve with a bowl under to collect the excess liquid from the tofu. Set aside till ready to use.
Garlic cloves - Peel, crush and finely chop. Discard the skin.
Green onions - Cut and discard the roots. Thinly slice the onions and the light green portions into diagonals. Do not include the leaves.
Cilantro - Finely chop and set aside.
Cornstarch - Combine the cornstarch and water in a bowl and set aside.
Turn the heat at its highest and keep it there!
In a wok, on the highest heat, add vegetable oil and heat for a few seconds till the oil is beginning to fume. Add the garlic and as soon as it begins turning a light brown, add the ground pork.
Saute for 2-3 minutes till the pork does from translucent pink to opaque brown. Add the soy bean paste and half the sliced onions. Saute for about a minute.
Add the soy sauce, sugar, salt, black pepper, Sichuan peppers and the drained tofu.
Stir and as you saute the pork and tofu together, the tofu will disintegrate. Saute for a minute or so.
Add the chicken stock and the cornstarch & water mixture. Give the cornstarch mix a stir to unsettle solids at the bottom.
Stir the pork and tofu to thoroughly combine the chicken stock and cornstarch. Allow to simmer for a few minutes and thicken.
Taste and adjust seasonings.
Sprinkle with remaining sliced green onions, stir, finish off with chopped cilantro leaves and serve hot with steamed rice and stir-fried leafy vegetables.