At first glance, mapo tofu is not the sort of dish that I would usually like. It’s oily, shiny and very, very red. It seems to exude spicy greasiness in ways that I find rather unnerving. You could say that it symbolises perfectly the region in China from where it originates: Sichuan. Known for its unforgiving sting and glossy red hues, Sichuanese food is of the love-it-or-hate-it variety. Lots of flavour crammed into just one pot (or dish) – it’s the culinary embodiment of a pressure cooker, and not for the faint of heart.
It’s surprising, therefore, that I have come to adore the vegetarian version of this Sichuanese sizzler (the non-vegetarian version, incidentally, contains mince – either pork or beef). It was M that converted me, and indeed MPT seems to have quite a strong Japanese following. You can buy sauce sachets in many Japanese grocery shops, and even a microwaveable version is available in Japanese convenience stores. But the best version? Homemade, always.
What I love most about MPT is the uniqueness of the spice. Yes it can be hot and fiery, but it’s also an interesting, nuanced and multi-dimensional sort of spiciness. It’s not just blow-your-mind heat hot, but there is an aromatic tanginess to it. It tastes thoughtful.
I attribute this to the complexity of one of its defining ingredients: Sichuan pepper. The slightly citrussy notes of the pepper add complexity to the flavours, whilst the ever-present husks of the peppercorns add an idiosyncratic crunch. Prior to making our most recent homemade batch (pictured above), we purchased a rather magnificent pestle and mortar (SGD 17 or so from Sheng Siong – a bargain!), and so were able to grind the ‘corns to achieve all new levels of flavour extraction. It was simply sublime.
For me at least, one of the best things about the spice is just how well it complements the tofu. Jagged and fiery on the one hand, smooth and bland on the other. Mix the two together and you have a wonderful balance of sensibility and sassiness, of substance and sting. For the batch above, we added some mince-like gluten to add a little more oomph to the sauce, and to deliver an extra protein kick. We also added some diced daikon, which, like the tofu, helped to mollify the spice and placate the tastebuds with its cooling rootiness. As I said, thoughtful.
MPT is almost always a go-to dish for us when it comes to Chinese food (many non-vegetarian Chinese eateries are able to whip up a vegetarian version if you ask nicely). There can be quite a wide range in quality (from the searingly hot to the suffocatingly greasy), but it’s a risk well worth taking. And if you want to make it yourself? There’s nobody I would recommend more than Cooking with Dog to teach you (the non-vegetarian version). Good luck in the kitchen!