Mapo tofu is one of the iconic dishes in Chinese cuisine. It is believed to have originated in Chengdu in the 1800’s. The translation of the name does little to whet your appetite, ma translates to “pockmarked” and po to “old woman”, a name that comes from the appearance of the creator of the dish whose face was scarred with smallpox. It is a classic Sichuan dish, spicy and bold with a lovely harmony of flavors. The dish usually has a topping of meat, beef originally, but pork is more common today, though this is a vegetarian version with dried shiitake mushrooms.
This variation is loaded with additional spices from the Malaysian kitchen, lemongrass, palm sugar and tamarind. The complexity comes together beautifully in a lovely sauce that explodes and numbs your palate. It is essential to serve this dish with some plain sticky jasmine rice to calm the spices. I choose a contemporary serving style for this dish. Instead of cooking the tofu and tossing it in the sauce, I leave it as a block and pour the sauce around It. Mandy Yin is a London-based lawyer who started her foray into the world of food with the Sambal Shiok restaurant. Sambal Shiok translates to "shockingly good sambal", and this book follows these steps with excellent recipes. The recipes swing from traditional to contemporary while maintaining wonderful flavours. This is a lovely cookbook for those who want to venture into the complex world of Malay cooking.
For more recipes from this cookbook, click here.
For the sambal tunis:
10 dried red chillies or 2 tablespoons chilli powder
10 fresh red chillies
2 onions, chunked
2-3 garlic cloves
3-4 tablespoons water
6 tablespoons oil
1 2-inch piece of lemongrass, bruised
1 tablespoon palm sugar or brown sugar
1 tablespoon tamarind paste
Salt, to taste
1 teaspoon shrimp paste (optional)
For the mapo tofu:
4 dried shiitake mushrooms soaked in hot water for 30 minutes
2 tablespoons oil
6 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 pack of soft tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Cilantro, minced, for garnish
Scallions, sliced, for garnish
For the sauce:
1 1/2 tablespoons soybean paste
A batch of sambal tunis
2 tablespoons Lao Gan Ma chilli sauce
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn powder
To make the sambal tunis:
Soak the dried chillies in hot water for 10 minutes.
Add the soaked dried chillies, fresh red chillies, onions and garlic to a small blender with the water and blend till you have a very smooth paste and the dried red chillies have completely broken down.
Heat the oil in a small pot and add the paste, lemongrass, sugar, tamarind, salt, and shrimp paste if using. Cook on a medium flame till the paste is dry and the oil has risen to the surface. the paste should be thick, turn a bright red and smell aromatic. Set aside.
To make the mapo tofu:
Squeeze all the liquids from the mushrooms saving the liquids. Cut the mushrooms very finely, or blitz the mushrooms in a small blender. Set aside.
Combine all the ingredients for the sauce and set aside.
Heat the oil in a wok or pot. Add the garlic and fry till it is lightly golden. Add the mushrooms and fry till the mushrooms have turned a shade darker and are cooked.
Add the sauce and cook for 2 minutes continually stirring the pot so that the sauce does not stick to the bottom and burn.
Add the mushroom water and bring it to a boil. Simmer for 3-4 minutes till you have a sauce that has a thick consistency.
Traditionally, the tofu is cut, added to the sauce, and mixed in carefully so as not to break up the tofu. Serin a bowl or platter garnished with cilantro and scallions.
I like to give this dish a more contemporary serving. I cut the tofu keeping the block intact. I place that in the centre of a shallow dish. I spoon the hot sauce around the tofu and garnish it with scallions and cilantro.
Serve with a side of sticky jasmine rice.