Pock-Marked Ma’s Bean Curd

Mapa Doufu

Preparation info

    Appears in

    Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook

    By Ellen Schrecker

    Published 1976

    • About

    Flavor: Reddish-Brown: YuxiangDinner: Menu

    Eugene Wu, the librarian of the Harvard-Yenching Library, grew up in Chengtu and claims that as a schoolboy he used to eat PockMarked Ma’s Bean Curd, or mapo doufu, at a restaurant run by the original Pock-Marked Ma herself. You ordered by weight, so many grams of bean curd and so many grams of meat, and your serving would be weighed out and cooked as you watched. It arrived at the table fresh, fragrant, and so spicy hot, or la, that it actually caused sweat to break out. Dr. Wu says that Mrs. Chiang’s version of the dish rivals that of the famous old lady. It is just as rich, fragrant, and hot.

    If we had to choose the quintessential Szechwanese dish, this spicy preparation of bean curd and chopped meat would probably be it. Its multiplicity of tastes and textures first stuns, then stimulates, the senses. It assaults the palate with the full spectrum of Szechwanese spices and condiments, from garlic and ginger to hot pepper paste and Szechwan pepper. It seems to contain almost every taste there is salty, hot, sweet, and pungent — as well as that uniquely Szechwanese quality, aromatic numbness, or ma, which only Szechwan pepper can produce. At the same time, a real mapo doufu offers an equally brilliant combination of textures. In each mouthful you can feel the smoothness of bean curd, the crunchiness of water chestnuts, the slipperiness of tree ears, and the graininess of chopped meat. In many ways, the ingredients used in a mapo doufu, its appearance, and its actual taste are similar to the classic “in the style of fish,” or yuxiang, dishes of Szechwan. It is quite possible that the poorly complected lady’s masterpiece is just a pseudonymous variation of that traditional style of cooking. Interestingly, Mrs. Chiang’s repertoire contains no recipe for fish-flavored bean curd.

    As it should be, this is one of the hottest dishes Mrs. Chiang makes. Serve it with plenty of rice to moderate the heat, but don’t reduce the amount of hot pepper flakes in oil and hot pepper paste too drastically; the authenticity of this dish depends on its spiciness. You may have trouble locating fresh water chestnuts; leave them out if you can’t find them. They, like the tree ears, are primarily texture foods and omitting them won’t change the final taste. This recipe produces more food than most of the other recipes in the book — enough, with rice and a light vegetable dish, to provide a meal for four people. For some reason, a mapo doufu tastes almost as good the second day as the first, so don’t worry if there are leftovers.

    Method

    Preparation

    ½ cup dried tree ears

    1 cup boiling water

    Put the tree ears in a small bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Let them soak for about 15 minutes, until they become soft and gelatinous.
    3-inch piece fresh ginger Peel the ginger, then chop it into tiny pieces, about the size of a match head.
    5 scallions Clean the scallions, then chop them, both the white part and about one-third of the green, into pieces slightly larger than the ginger, about ¼ inch in diameter.

    (1 tablespoon of the chopped ginger)

    (1 scallion’s worth of the chopped scallions)

    ½ pound ground pork or beef

    2 tablespoons soy sauce

    1 teaspoon sesame oil

    1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or cooking sherry

    Add 1 tablespoon of the chopped ginger and 1 scallion’s worth of the chopped scallions to the ground pork, along with the soy sauce, sesame oil, and wine. Mix thoroughly, then set aside for about 30 minutes.

    8 or more cloves garlic (for a yield of 2 tablespoons chopped garlic)

    (the remaining chopped ginger)

    Peel the garlic, then chop it coarsely. Combine it with the rest of the chopped ginger and mince them both together until they reach the consistency of a thick paste. (This may take several minutes, but Mrs. Chiang insists that the finer you chop the garlic and ginger the more interesting the finished dish will be.)
    6 fresh water chestnuts (optional) Cut the dark skin off the outside of the water chestnuts, then chop them into pieces about the size of a match head.

    2 teaspoons cornstarch

    ½ cup water

    Combine the cornstarch and water in a small bowl and set aside.
    6 squares fresh bean curd Cut the bean curd into ½-inch cubes.
    (tree ears) Drain the tree ears, then rinse them and pick them over carefully to remove the tiny impurities, like little pieces of wood, that might still be embedded in them. Then mince into little pieces the size of a match head.

    1 tablespoon cornstarch

    (meat mixture)

    Just before you are ready to begin cooking, add the cornstarch to the meat mixture and blend thoroughly.

    Cooking

    6 tablespoons peanut oil Heat your wok or pan over a moderately high flame for about 15 seconds, then add the oil. It should be hot enough to cook with when the first small bubbles begin to form and a few small wisps of smoke appear.
    (garlic and ginger) When the oil is ready, quickly throw in the garlic and ginger and vigorously stir-fry them over a medium flame for about 30 seconds, using your cooking shovel or spoon to scoop the ingredients from the sides of the pan and then stir them around in the middle, so they won’t bum or stick.

    1-½ teaspoons hot pepper flakes in oil

    1 tablespoon hot pepper paste

    (water chestnuts and tree ears)

    Continue to stir-fry while you add the hot pepper flakes in oil, hot pepper paste, water chestnuts, and tree ears. Then stir-fry for another 30 seconds.
    (meat mixture) Add the meat mixture and keep stirring it as it cooks, taking special care to break up any large chunks of meat that stick together.

    (bean curd)

    (scallions)

    1 teaspoon granulated sugar

    After the meat has cooked for about 1 minute and has lost its pinkish color, throw in the bean curd and the chopped scallions and stir-fry everything together for about 45 seconds. Then add the sugar and stir-fry for another 30 seconds.

    3 tablespoons soy sauce

    ½ cup water

    Pour in the soy sauce and the water and wait for the liquid to boil, then let the contents of the pan cook over a moderate flame for 2 more minutes.
    1-½ teaspoons ground, roasted Szechwan peppercorns Add the Szechwan peppercorns and stir thoroughly.
    (cornstarch and water)

    At this point, determine how much sauce there is in the pan. If the dish seems watery, you should get ready to add the cornstarch and water mixture that you have already prepared. But if there does not seem to be much liquid, you won’t need the cornstarch.

    Make sure that you stir up the cornstarch mixture before you pour it into the pan, then stir-fry everything over a medium flame until the sauce becomes clear and slightly thickened.

    1 teaspoon sesame oil

    1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

    Add the sesame oil and stir it in thoroughly; then, just before serving, taste the dish for salt. It should taste sharp and clear, with just a hint of sweetness. Stir the salt in and serve.