Ma po tofu, sometimes translated as “pockmarked-face lady’s tofu,” is a spicy tofu dish slathered with a rich, savory sauce of chiles, minced meat, and spices, almost like Chinese chili con carne, with the numbing power of Sichuan peppercorns. At Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, they marinate a hunk of pork shoulder, grind it, stew it up in a fiery and fragrant blend of freshly ground spices, and mix in some tofu just before serving. Mission Chinese Food’s chef, Danny Bowien, advises serving leftover sauce over sautéed Chinese long beans or eggplant.
What to buy: Chinese black vinegar is a robustly flavored rice vinegar that can be found at most Asian markets. Make sure it is not labeled “sweetened black vinegar.”
Fermented black beans, known as douchi in Chinese, are soybeans that have been salted and fermented, turning them black, soft, and dry. These savory, salty, and somewhat sweet and bitter beans are used as a flavoring agent throughout Chinese cooking. Fermented black beans can be found in the dry goods section of most Asian markets.
If you can’t find soft tofu, substitute firm, but do not use silken tofu, as its soft texture will disintegrate into the sauce.
Beech mushrooms, also called clamshell or hon-shimeji, originate from Southeast Asia and are popular in Japan. These small, white or brown capped fungi are sweet and nutty and keep their shape nicely when cooked, lending themselves well to stews, soups, and sauces. They can be found at many Asian grocers, though sliced button or baby bella mushrooms can be substituted if needed.
Special equipment: You’ll need a meat grinder for this recipe. We used the special attachments for a KitchenAid stand mixer.
You’ll also need a spice or coffee grinder. We used this Krups coffee grinder with good results.
Game plan: Since this recipe makes 12 cups of meat sauce and you only need 3 cups for the ma po tofu, freeze the leftovers for a simple weeknight meal.
- 1Place all ingredients in a large bowl and stir to evenly coat the pork. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 4 hours.
For the sauce:
- 1Heat the oven to 400°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Place the chiles in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast until slightly darkened and fragrant, about 3 to 5 minutes. Let cool completely. Using a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder, grind the chiles into a fine powder. Transfer to a medium bowl. Grind the star anise pods along with the Sichuan peppercorns into a fine powder and add to the chiles; set aside.
- 2When the pork is ready, set a colander over a large bowl and transfer the pork and marinade mixture to the colander. Set the marinade aside. Using a meat grinder fitted with a coarse (1/4-inch) dye, grind the pork into a large Dutch oven or a heavy-bottomed pot with a tightfitting lid.
- 3Add the ground spice mixture, reserved marinade, brown sugar, salt, water, bay leaf, and cardamom pod to the ground pork and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the meat is no longer pink, about 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the flavors have melded, about 2 hours, stirring every half hour. Meanwhile, place the vinegar, garlic, ginger, tomato paste, fermented black beans, and soy sauce in a medium bowl and stir to combine; set aside.
- 4When the pork is ready, remove from heat, add the reserved black bean mixture and the mushrooms, and stir to combine. Taste and season with chile oil, additional soy sauce, brown sugar, and black or white vinegar as needed to balance the flavors. (At this point, you can cool the sauce completely, then transfer it to a container with a tightfitting lid and freeze it for up to 1 month.)
- 1Place 3 cups of the sauce in a large frying pan over medium-high heat until simmering. Add the tofu, stir gently to combine, and simmer until the tofu is heated through, about 3 minutes.
- 2Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with cilantro and scallions, and serve with steamed rice.