Sometimes I think too hard about challenge meals for the 52 week cooking challenge. I like trying new things and getting out of my comfort zone, but really, it just has to fit the theme. For heritage week, I kept looking up Cantonese recipes to try to find something that would really represent my heritage, but just couldn't come up with anything that would work (or that wouldn't require an extra trip down to Chinatown, which I didn't have time for). Then I thought maybe I'd do fried rice as a nod to Chinese American takeout, but eventually just settled on ma po tofu.
Ma po tofu isn't a new dish for us (in fact, in the past couple of months, I've probably made it more than anything else), but I'm still refining it and have changed it quite a bit from when I made it that first time. So this post is going to be more about what changed and then a quick summary of how I make it now (mostly for myself so I don't have to keep looking it up every time).
One thing that's different now is that I add a chopped onion in the beginning. The first time we made the ma po tofu, it was part of a multi-course Chinese dinner, but these days, I make it on its own a lot. Some extra vegetables are always good. Another difference is that I don't really measure anything anymore. I also use more of all of the seasonings than before, but that could be because they've become duller and lost some of their punch over the years.
Instead of using silken tofu and putting it in hot water to steep, these days I just use firm tofu, no steeping. Part of that is because it's so much easier for me to buy firm tofu in the 4 pack at Costco, but another part of it is because it's just so much more convenient. Would soft tofu be more authentic? Yeah, probably, but the firm works just fine for us.
The original recipe said you could use either leeks or scallions, and the first time I made it (the first few times, really), I used scallions. Eventually I moved on to leeks, using the frozen ones from Trader Joe's, thawing them, and then cutting them into thin slices. Now I've moved even more toward convenience and speed, just like with the firm tofu, and I dump the frozen leeks, whole, straight into the dish, let them cook, and then separate out the pieces. Would it be better sliced? Yes, but not so much so that I want to take the time to prep that.
Those are the main changes. If you're curious, here's the recipe for my current adapted version of ma po tofu. (As a reminder, the original is here.)
1. Prep - mince about 1 tbsp of garlic and 1 tbsp of ginger, rinse about 1/2 cup of fermented black beans, chop 1 onion.
2. Heat oil in wok, add 2 large spoonfuls of chili bean paste.
3. Once fragrant, add chopped onion and cook for a few minutes.
4. Add a couple tsp of ground red chili and the black beans. Once fragrant, then add the minced ginger and garlic.
5. Add tofu, stir fry for a few minutes, and mix well with everything else.
6. Add 1/2 cup of water, a couple tsp of white pepper, a dash of salt, and the frozen leeks. Bring to boil and then allow it to simmer until the leeks are cooked and the flavors have combined.
7. Once it's almost done, mix some potato flour with a little water, and add to thicken up the sauce.
We still really like this dish, but we remember liking the flavors more before. The last few times we thought it hadn't been spicy enough, but I tried to remedy that this time by using less water, especially since the leeks added more water since they were covered in ice crystals, and adding more ground chili. There still was something different about it, and I think it's because we haven't been able to find the same brand of chili bean paste and the last set of black beans we had had more depth to them. With the ingredients we have, this might be the best we're going to get at this point. It's still good, but I guess it will always be a work in progress.