Posts Tagged 'cooking'

The Best Mapo Tofu

I discovered Sichuan food a year and a half ago and, unexpectedly, gained a new hobby. Since then, I’ve cooked my way through much of Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. I’ve eaten Sichuan in New York, Seattle, Vancouver, Shanghai, and Beijing. I’ve spent hours trying figure out which of the myriad mysterious Chinese-labeled ingredients on the shelves at Uwajimaya were the ones I was looking for, and trying to interpret the inconsistent and often non-descriptive translations on Chinese menus. (Recently, to aid in my Chinese restaurant ordering, I copied the Chinese characters and phonetic transcriptions for my favorite dishes and many basic food terms onto a card that I carry in my wallet. I really did this.)

One of my favorite dishes is Mapo Tofu. When done well, it’s so delicious and comforting: warm, salty, spicy, and tingly with Sichuan peppercorn. I’ve tried it at many different restaurants and had some versions that were instantly forgettable and some that I still think about months later.

It’s also incredibly easy to make at home, once you have a few basic ingredients in the pantry. The recipe below–in which I combined elements of several different recipes I tried–is my current favorite. Since I first started cooking Chinese, for better or worse, I’ve become more comfortable using lashings of oil, so these days, I’m more apt to make this version–which is still less oily than many restaurant versions–than the modified version I was making last year. (Disclaimer: I definitely wouldn’t call myself an expert, and I make no claims about what is authentic. This is just what I like the best, after a fair amount of sampling and experimentation.)


Peanut or vegetable oil

Block of tofu, cut into bite-size squares (I like fresh, silken tofu the best, but firm will also do just fine)

About 6 oz. of ground pork

2-3 tablespoons Sichuan spicy bean paste

2-3 tablespoons chili oil

1-2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorn powder (Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and ground to a powder)

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 teaspoon fermented black beans, chopped

3 green onions, chopped

2 gloves garlic, chopped

1 cup chicken stock

1.5 teaspoons cornstarch, mixed with a little water


Heat a little oil in a wok or skillet and add pork. Cook pork until almost done. Add Sichuan bean paste, chili oil, and garlic, and cook for a minute or two. Add soy sauce and fermented black beans and cook for another minute or two. When pork is cooked through, add stock and tofu. Stir gently to mix everything well, and bring to a simmer. Add cornstarch/water mixture and stir until glossy and thickened. Add green onions and Sichuan peppercorn and remove from heat. Serve with rice.


I’m turning into a food hoarder.

One of the things I’m adjusting to, moving to the country, is buying groceries ahead of time.

Before we moved, I bought every dinner just before we ate it. I tried to keep breakfast and lunch on hand (at least when I was working at home) but I never bought groceries for making dinner before the day I needed them. Everything was within easy walking distance, and I’d decide what to cook for dinner according to my daily whim.

Now, there’s a grocery store across the street from our new place, but the selection is limited. I need to plan ahead if I’m going to be able to make whatever I want for dinner, or face a 40-minute round trip drive to reach other stores with a bigger selection. (Or a 2-hour bike ride, probably in the rain, since we only have one car.)

I’ve been out driving around and shopping a lot — doing a lot of moving-related errands which are thankfully almost done — and so I’ve been trying to stock our pantry and refrigerator by picking up food whenever I’m near a grocery store. Snacks, in case people stop by. Cookie-baking supplies. A chicken for roasting in the near future. Ingredients to go with the chorizo I picked up in Seattle the other day.

It feels unnatural. My default position on buying stuff is to not buy it. This is obviously a good habit in some ways: it probably saves money, and it keeps us from collecting too many things and creating clutter.



It can also be bad, or at least inefficient, like when I refuse to buy more than four rolls of toilet paper at the same time. (When I lived by myself, I bought them one at a time, so the four-pack is a concession.) This drives my husband crazy, and he responds by buying ever-larger bulk packs of toilet paper and paper towels. He outdid himself when we moved; we now own a truly outlandish stock of paper goods.

My reluctance to acquire things is also a negative in the case of elastic hairbands, which I search for beneath beds and behind couches and treasure like family heirlooms, even when they’ve lost all elasticity and are coated in spidery tangles of hair that make my husband shy away in horror. I should clearly just buy new ones, but it rarely feels necessary enough to compel action on my part.

So haphazardly buying all this food we don’t technically need at the moment I’m buying it and aren’t going to immediately consume goes against years of habit. It raises a faint warning bell in my head that  I’m turning into a food hoarder and that it won’t stop until we’re sleeping on the floor amid piles of stale rice crackers, rotting feta cheese, and aging chorizo from DeLaurenti in Seattle. It probably won’t turn out that way, but for now, it is a genuine adjustment.

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