This Hunan-inspired dish of meaty, chili-zested tofu is far more to my liking than its well-known Szechwanese cousin, “Ma-Po Tofu.” In this dish the tiny tofu cubes are first deep-fried to a firm golden brown, so they are resilient and not simply mushy when you bite down on them. The sauce is a spicy conspiracy of garlic, ginger, scallion, and chili, and the bits of meat and diced carrots or string beans contribute color, substance, and crunch.
Weight soft tofu to drain it of excess water. Firm Chinese style tofu does not require weighting.
Cut the tofu neatly into small cubes ¼–½ inch square, then spread on a double thickness of paper towels to drain.
Blanch the diced vegetables in plain boiling water to cover, 20 seconds for carrots, 10 seconds for string beans, or longbeans. Drain immediately, rush under cold water until chilled, then put aside to drain.
Mince the garlic, scallion, and ginger in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife, scraping down as necessary until fine. Alternatively, mince by hand. Combine the liquid seasonings.
Have the tofu cubes, a tray lined with a double thickness of dry paper towels, and a large Chinese mesh spoon within easy reach of your stovetop.
Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add the oil, then heat to the dense-haze stage, 400° on a deep-fry thermometer, when a cube of tofu bobs instantly to the surface with a crown of white bubbles. Gently scatter the cubes in the oil and fry 1–2 minutes until firm and golden, poking gently with the spoon to separate the cubes. Scoop from the oil and remove to the dry paper-towel drain. Shake the tray so the cubes turn and blot on all sides.
The above may all be done several hours in advance. Refrigerate the minced aromatics, sealed airtight, and leave the tofu on the paper towels at room temperature.
Once cool, strain, bottle, and refrigerate the oil for future frying.
About 10 minutes in advance of serving, arrange the tofu, diced vegetables, meat, aromatics and liquid seasonings, and the remaining ingredients all within easy reach of your stovetop. Put a serving bowl with a lively color in a low oven to warm.
Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add 3 tablespoons oil and swirl to coat the pan. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle a bit of garlic, add the minced aromatics and stir-fry until fully fragrant, about 30 seconds, adjusting the heat so they foam without browning. Add the meat and poke briskly to break up the clumps, adjusting the heat to maintain a merry sizzle and adding a bit more oil from the side of the pan if the meat is sticking. Toss just until the meat is 90 percent gray, then quickly fold in the chili sauce, add the vegetable, and stir to combine. Pour the liquid seasonings into the pan, add the cubed tofu, then stir very gently to mix. Raise the heat to bring the liquids to a simmer, taste, then add about ¼ teaspoon sugar to bring out the full, tangy spice of the chili, and salt to taste. Lower the heat to moderate, stir the cornstarch mixture to recombine and pour it evenly into the pan. Stir gently until the mixture turns glossy and slightly thick, about 30 seconds, then turn off the heat. Add freshly ground pepper to taste, stir gently to mix, then serve at once in the heated bowl.
Leftovers may be resteamed in a tightly covered bowl until hot, and will grow spicier in the process.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.