Legend has it that this dish, Ma Po Tofu, is named after the wife of a Qing Dynasty restauranteur that was scarred with smallpox. Apparently she prepared this dish for hungry people returning home and as it's so delicious, it thus became popular.
What is fairly strange with it is that it uses minced beef, something not regularly seen in Chinese cookery. My grandmother made a dish with minced beef, tinned tomatoes and spring onions, a sort of bolognese-style dish but this is the only one I really remember. Don't be put off by the tofu - this is a dish that I've known to convert tofu haters. It combines the great almost crunchy texture of the beef with the silky tofu pieces perfectly and is a spicy, rich and warming dish. Many restaurants use minced pork, and also add things like shiitake mushrooms, but I prefer this version; simple, and with the main components shining through.
The recipe I use is adapted from Fuschia Dunlop's 'Sichuan Cookery'. I love this book and I highly admire Dunlop. No simpering or batting the eyelashes at the camera like Ching He-Huang, but instead she's actually lived in the country and writes about authentic and traditional recipes.
Ma Po Tofu (Pock-Marked Mother Chen's Beancurd)
1 block of tofu (I use Mori-Nu Tetrapak Firm Silken, when I can't get fresh)
4 stalks of spring onion, sliced on the diagonal
180gr minced beef
2 1/2 tbsp chilli bean paste
1 tbsp fermented black beans, or black bean sauce
2 tsp ground chilli (if you really love chilli)
250ml vegetable or chicken stock
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp Chinese black vinegar
2 tsp light soy sauce
2 heaped tsp cornflour mixed with a little cold water
1/2 tsp Sichuan pepper, dry-roasted & ground
3 tbsp groundnut oil. Dunlop uses much more, and this is meant to be an oily dish, but I can't bring myself to do it.Cut your tofu into cubes and steep in hot water. Heat your wok until smoking, then add the oil. When it's shimmering, add the minced beef and fry the beef on a high heat until it's crispy. Add the chilli bean paste, and fry until fragrant. Add the black beans or black bean sauce and the ground chilli if using.
Next, add the stock with the soy sauce, sugar and vinegar. Carefully drain the tofu, then add the tofu to the wok and simmer for 5 or 10 minutes so that the tofu absorbs the flavour. Add the spring onion, stir ever-so-carefully, and then add the slakened cornflour and cook until thickened. Sprinkle the Sichuan pepper over the dish and serve with steamed rice and steamed greens.