27 April 2009
At Long Last: Ma Po Tofu
I've been in love with Ma Po Tofu for years, ever since I first tasted it at a friend's house. Her mother was a fantastic cook, and as much as I loved my own mom's cooking, I happily spoiled my dinner many times anyway. Unfortunately I never once tasted a comparable version of this dish. Nothing could replicate the slightly sweet taste of the pork and its fat juices mingled with the texture of the tofu and the delightfully potent chili garlic sauce. For years I only ever thought of tofu in relation to Ma Po Tofu.
A serious tip of the hat goes to Foodmayhem for posting this recipe, as I had almost completely given up on ever tasting Ma Po Tofu again without almost instantaneous disappointment. Ian was over the moon for it as well, and I've already made it three times in a month.
The only alteration I made was to increase the water from 1/2 cup to a full cup considering I actually used more pork than was called for. I also happened to look up the history of the dish. Food history is one of my hobbies, and some of the tastiest dishes have interesting origins. According to legend, Ma Po Tofu (from what I gathered, originally "mapo doufu" but there seems to be a dispute over the transliteration) originated in the Chinese city of Chengdu, concocted by an old woman disfigured by pockmarks. Unfortunately for her she had years before been banished to the outer skirts of Chengdu yet her cooking was discovered by a man and his son. The old woman lived in relative obscurity for much of her life, but luckily her dish lives on in a multitude of variations, although the first dish of legend only specifies tofu, pork and Sichuan peppercorns.
Of course, I have no idea if this story is true. I enlisted a friend fluent in Chinese to help me with a Chinese online encyclopedia entry that claims Ma Po Tofu was created by a woman whose husband was a restaurant chef sometime during the Qing Dynasty. The word "Ma" seems also to be in contention, and since I'm not an expert, I defer to my ignorance. Frankly, I'm not sure I mind not knowing the truth of a food history. It seems to me that often the popular legend came to be through a sequence of composition that is way sexier than the accidental/mundane food stories (see Chicken Tikka Masala or "stone soup").
If you'd like to see a picture of Mapo Doufu from a restaurant in Chengdu (reportedly straight from the legendary source), see here.