As cookbook writer Andrea Nguyen learned on a trip to Chengdu, there is no one way to make the classic dish of ma po tofu.
As she writes in her seminal cookbook, “Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home” (Ten Speed Press, 2012), this home-style, saucy dish is sometimes made with ground beef; other times, ground pork. And sometimes chile bean sauce; or other times, a heap of Sichuan peppercorns.
So hopefully, she won’t consider it sacrilege that I actually made it with ground lamb instead.
But when I had a half a pound of ground lamb left over from another recipe, and was looking for a home for it, I found it ideally in this recipe of hers.
Nguyen’s original recipe calls for 6 ounces ground beef or pork. And yes, I used 8 ounces of ground lamb, which added a little more meatiness, as well as an ever so subtle gamey nuance that complemented this rustic dish.
At restaurants, I’ve had versions of ma po tofu that were covered in an eye-popping, thick layer of red oil or fiery enough to send smoke out of the top of my head.
Thankfully, this version has neither of those qualities. There’s still the characteristic lip-tingling from Sichuan peppercorns, and a moderate amount of heat to wake up the palate. If you like it hotter, just add more chile flakes or chili bean sauce.
Cubes of firm tofu meld with the ground meat in a bold, savory, peppery sauce that’s addictive. Be sure to have plenty of steamed rice to accompany the dish, and to douse the heat when needed.
In fact, the sauce has so much going on that you could probably use ground chicken or ground turkey, too, and it would be as equally satisfying.
That substitution may not be traditional. But in these times, we learn to make do — and more often than not, end up on the other side licking our chops quite happily.
Spicy Tofu with Lamb and Sichuan Peppercorn (Ma Po Dou Fu)
(Serves 4 as part of a family-style meal with 2 or 3 other dishes)
14 to 16 ounces medium or medium-firm tofu
1 generous teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
3 tablespoons canola oil
8 ounces ground lamb or beef or pork, fattier kind preferred, roughly chopped to loosen
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon dried chile flakes, optional
1 tablespoon fermented black beans, optional
2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons chile bean sauce (Pixian kind preferred)
1 generous teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons light (regular) soy sauce
2 large green onions, white and green parts, cut on the diagonal into pieces about 1 1/2 inches long
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 3 tablespoons water
Cut the tofu into 1/2-inch cubes and put into a bowl. Bring a kettle of water to a rolling boil. Turn off the heat and when the boiling subsides, pour water over the tofu to cover. Set aside for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, measure out 1 1/3 cups of water (the stuff you just boiled is fine) and set aside near the stove. You’ll be using it later for the sauce.
In a large wok or skillet, toast the peppercorn over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until richly fragrant and slightly darkened; you may see a wisp of smoke. Let it cool briefly, then pound with a mortar and pestle or grind in a spice grinder. Set aside.
Drain the tofu in a strainer or colander and put it near the stove. As with all stir-fries, assemble your ingredients next to the stove.
Heat the oil in the wok or skillet over high heat. Add the lamb, stirring and mashing into small pieces until crumbly and cooked through, about 2 minutes. Add the ginger, chile flakes, fermented black beans, and chile sauce. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the beef is a rich reddish-brown color and the chile sauce has turned the oil slightly red. Add the sugar and soy sauce, stir to combine, then add the tofu. Gently stir or give the wok a shake to combine without breaking up the tofu much.
Pour in the 1 1/3 cups water you set aside earlier. Bring to a vigorous simmer, and cook for about 3 minutes to allow the tofu to absorb the flavors of the sauce.
Taste the sauce and add a pinch of salt or sugar, if needed. Add the green onion and stir to combine. Give the cornstarch one last stir, then pour enough into the wok to thicken the sauce. You may not need to use it all. In Sichuan, the sauce is more soupy than gravylike. Sprinkle in the ground peppercorn, give the mixture one last stir to incorporate, then transfer to a shallow bowl. Serve immediately with lots of hot rice.
Adapted from “Asian Tofu” by Andrea Nguyen
Another Recipe from “Asian Tofu” to Try: Roast Chicken with Red Fermented Tofu
And More Andrea Nguyen Recipes to Enjoy: Baked Char Siu Pork Buns