Stirring Tips on “Toss Frying” with “The Wok” Cookbook Author

Cookbook author J. Kenji López-Alt has built a career out of teaching people the science behind improving home cooking. His latest book is about pan cooking. And while this skillet is most commonly associated with Chinese cuisine, López-Alt says it can be used for all kinds of dishes.

“The Wok: Recipes and Techniques” follows his first book, “The Food Lab,” which was a nearly 1,000-page spread of kitchen methods and techniques, with detailed instructions on how to boil a perfect steak or cook a professional omelet.

Mapo tofu
Yield 4
Activity time: 20 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes


Mapo tofu is J.Kenji López-Alt’s favorite dish, and the direct translation of the name is “granny’s soaked tofu.” Courtesy of J.Kenji López-Alt.

that’s it. My favorite dish in the world and grandmother of Sichuan cuisine. Literally translated as “granny’s soaked tofu,” its dubious origin story is exactly the same as half a dozen other food origin stories: it starts with hungry crowds and cooks with few ingredients but lots of creativity. The result is an inexpensive stew that uses simple ingredients—soft tofu, ground beef (traditionally beef, but a lot of pork), fermented bean paste, a handful of Sichuan peppers, and plenty of hot red chile oil—to create a simple, soul-satisfying fare.

I grew up on the sweet, savory, and heavy version of Mapo Tofu on beef my mom used to make for us (see page 600). When paired with the handmade beef patties, they were by far my favorite meal. Since then, I’ve had mapo tofu everywhere from Chinese fast food joints in Manhattan to straight from the source in Chengdu.

I seldom get visibly excited about anything—not sure if that makes me a staid or emotionless shell of a human being—but as we sat in Chen Mapu Dufu, the high-end Chengdu institution upon which the fame of Grandma Chen’s own recipe was supposedly built, I felt a little dizzy.

You can find mapo tofu on the menu at almost any restaurant in China, especially in Sichuan, but this version, served in a hot cast iron pot, was easily my favorite. Tender cubes of tender tofu topped with lean beef under a bubbly layer of chile oil, scented with roasted Sichuan peppers and fermented horsebeans. He didn’t have the blast of Chilly heat that you might expect from looking at her. Instead, it has a more subtle heat, with layers of chili that alternate like sweet and hot with a rich, raisin-like dried fruit flavor.

I’m happy to say that the best US version I’ve had, made by Zhang Wenxue, a Sichuan chef in Fuloon, in Malden, Massachusetts (I believe it has since been closed), tastes almost perfect – alike to those in Chin. I’m more than happy to report that he was kind enough to share his techniques and recipes with me a few years ago, and I’ve changed them up quite a bit over the years. The only thing I’ve changed is how I handle the tofu. Traditionally, tofu is briefly boiled in water before being added to soup. I’ve always heard this described as “to remove the flavor of raw beans.” After I tasted them side by side, I didn’t notice any difference, so I personally skipped this step, although I wouldn’t resist if you wanted to boil your tofu beforehand.

There is nothing difficult with this technique other than to be careful once you add the tofu so it doesn’t get broken up by stirring too hard. If you can ejaculate without tools, do it (see ‘Technique’ on page 366). Otherwise, carefully slide a wok under the tofu and gently stir while cooking. Once the ingredients are prepared, the recipe takes 10 minutes on the stove.

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon (8 g) Sichuan red pepper
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) peanut, rice bran, or other neutral oil
  • 1 teaspoon (3 g) cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) cold water
  • 120g minced beef or pork
  • 2 teaspoons (5 g) minced garlic (about 2 medium cloves)
  • 2 teaspoons (5 g) chopped fresh ginger (about ½ inch)
  • 2 tablespoons (30 g) fermented chile bean paste (dubanjiang)
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of Shaoxing wine
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) dark soy sauce
  • 2 tsp (10 ml) light soy sauce
  • ½ cup (60 ml) chicken broth or low-sodium, homemade or store-bought water
  • 1½ pounds medium to firm tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • ½ cup (60 ml) homemade (page 310) or store-bought Chilean oil
  • 3 green onions, sliced
  • Steamed rice to serve

instructions

  1. Heat half a Sichuan pepper in a large skillet over high heat until it smokes slightly. Transfer to mortar and pestle. Grind until smooth and set aside.
  2. Add the remaining Sichuan peppers and oil to the skillet. Heat over medium-high heat until slightly sizzling, about 1½ minutes. Remove the spider pepper and toss, leaving the oil in the skillet.
  3. Combine cornstarch and cold water in a small bowl and mix with a fork until combined. Sit aside.
  4. Heat the remaining oil in the skillet over high heat until smoking. Add meat and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add garlic and ginger and cook for 15 seconds until fragrant. Add the hot bean paste and cook until the oil begins to turn red, about 30 seconds. Add wine, soy sauce, chicken broth and bring to a boil. Pour in the cornstarch mixture and cook for 30 seconds, until firm. Add the tofu and fold it in carefully, being careful not to break it up too much. Add the chile oil and half the green onion and simmer for 30 seconds. Immediately transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with the remaining green onions and toasted ground Sichuan peppers.
  5. Serve immediately with steamed rice.

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