A while ago a friend told me about Mapo Tofu. I hadn’t heard of it before, despite it being arguably the most popular dish in the Szechuan region of China. I’m always excited when I find a new exotic recipe on which I can put my own spin – especially one that the excellent food blogger J. Kenji Lopez-Alt describes as the dish he’d eat on death row.

I sourced all the ingredients and made it. It was delicious: rich, intense, savoury and spicy, but it requires more obscure ingredients than anything I’ve made before. Among them are: Shaoxing wine, Szechuan peppercorns, dried Chinese chillies, fermented chilli broad bean paste, fermented black beans and Chiu Chow chilli oil. How many of these have you used or seen before?!

So I thought, what would really be useful to my readers is if I could manage to recreate it without any obscure ingredients. I like a challenge…!

For this recipe, I count an obscure ingredient as one you can’t find in a decently sized supermarket. So where I live, if it’s not available in a sizeable Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose or Asda, then it is an obscure ingredient. I’ve used four ingredients here that you may think go against the challenge I set myself – dried porcini mushrooms, miso paste, sriracha and tofu – but you can actually find them in mainstream supermarkets, sometimes in the ‘world food’ aisle, so I don’t count them as obscure.

The trickiest ingredient to substitute was the fermented chilli broad bean paste, or Toban Djan. It’s spicy; but not the dry, roasted heat of chilli powder, which reminds me of Indian curries, but a fresh fruity heat. Sriracha has a similar punch, and is sweet, also like Toban Djan. I used miso to imitate the paste’s deeply savoury, fermented flavour. I trialled marmite for extra sticky-saltiness, but it was too dominant, so I opted for soy sauce. For some amusing context, may I point out that Toban Djan is very hot and an image of me sweating and crying would best describe what this process was like.

However, the most unpleasant task was still to come: finding a substitute for the Shaoxing wine. It tastes like a sweet wine but is rather vinegary at the same time. After much sipping, swirling and spitting out, teeth squeaky and lips puckered, I found that a combination of white wine vinegar, sugar and brandy fit the bill. Don’t go buying a bottle of brandy for the sake of one teaspoon, though – it’ll work fine without.

Regrettably, as with all substitutions, there is a compromise. Szechuan peppercorns are one of the fundamental ingredients in Mapo Tofu and probably the hardest to replicate. They have a floral, piney aroma and have a unique, mentholated numbing effect on your tongue. I knew that mixing a bunch of spices in an attempt to reproduce the flavour and sensation would be a lost cause, so I used regular black peppercorns in the knowledge that they wouldn’t take the dish too far away from Mapo Tofu but would still add a certain warmth.

I’ve also included a traditional recipe below my less obscure one, complete with all manner of obscure ingredients, for the hardcore foodies out there!

Mapo Tofu - no obscure ingredients

Yield:
Serves 4
Prep time:
30 mins
Cook time:
25 mins

Ingredients:

(for more optional substitutions see bottom of the page)

  for the bean paste substitute
1 tbspbrown/red miso paste
1½ tspsriracha hot sauce
½ tspsoy sauce
½ tspdark brown sugar
  for the stock
10g/.35ozdried porcini mushrooms
1 tbspsoy sauce
1½ tbspwhite wine vinegar
1 tspsugar
1 tspbrandy
1 tspcornflour (aka cornstarch)
  for the main dish
200g/7ozbutton/chestnut mushrooms
⅓ cup/80mlneutral oil such as sunflower or groundnut
1 tbspwhole black peppercorns
1 mediumfresh red chilli, thinly sliced, deseeded if you're sensitive to heat
3 largecloves garlic, very finely chopped, crushed or grated
1½ tbsp/10gvery finely chopped or grated ginger
4spring onions (aka scallions), chopped, white ends separated from greens
700g/1.5lbsmedium or firm silken tofu (normally comes in small cardboard boxes) sliced into large cubes (I use this one and love it)*
1½ cups/285gbasmati rice, rinsed

Process:

  1. Mix the bean paste substitute ingredients well in a small dish. Set aside.
  2. For the stock, put the dried mushrooms in a heat-proof jug or cup and pour over ¾ cup (180ml) boiling water. Balance something like a food-safe plastic lid on top of the mushrooms to keep them submerged. If you can't find something appropriate, use paper towels (these are less ideal as they will absorb some of the stock). Set aside for 10 minutes.
  3. Use a fork or spoon to take out the now rehydrated mushrooms. Mix the soy sauce, white wine vinegar, sugar and brandy (but not the cornstarch yet) into the soaking liquid. Set aside. Finely chop the rehydrated mushrooms and transfer to a small bowl for later.
  4. For the main dish, finely chop the button/chestnut mushrooms into ½ cm/¼ inch pieces. This could also be done with a quick pulse in a food processor.
  5. Place a fine-mesh sieve (strainer) over a heatproof bowl in the sink. In a wok, heat the ⅓ cup oil over a high heat. Add the chopped fresh mushrooms and fry for 10-15 minutes. They will sputter so be careful. At first they will bubble a lot too - this is normal. Eventually they will shrink down and crisp up.
  6. Once the mushrooms are crispy but before they burn, drain them through the sieve in the sink over the bowl. Put the fried mushrooms with the rehydrated porcini mushrooms from earlier. Return the oil to the wok. Put the sieve and bowl back in the sink as you'll be using them again.
  7. Fry the peppercorns and red chilli for 1 minute in the wok. Drain the oil again through the sieve into the bowl. Discard the peppercorns and chilli but return the oil to the wok.
  8. Put the rice in a medium saucepan with 3 cups (750ml) boiling water. Put the lid on and cook over a med-low heat for 10 minutes, watching that the water doesn't boil over.
  9. While the rice is cooking, stir fry the garlic, ginger and spring onions (scallions) over a high heat in the wok, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds. Quickly move onto the next step if they look like they're burning.
  10. Add the rehydrated and fried mushrooms to the wok. Add the bean paste substitute too and stir so everything is coated.
  11. Use a fork to whisk the cornstarch into the stock. Now add this to the wok and stir. Cook for about 1½-2 minutes until the mixture has thickened.
  12. Carefully add the tofu and fold it in. Remove the wok from the heat.
  13. Sprinkle over some of the chopped green parts of the spring onions. Fluff up the rice with a fork then divide into 4 bowls. Spoon over the mapo tofu and serve.

Mapo Tofu - traditional

Yield:
Serves 4
Prep time:
30 mins
Cook time:
25 mins

Ingredients:

(for more optional substitutions see bottom of the page)

  for the bean paste substitute
1 tbspbrown/red miso paste
1½ tspsriracha hot sauce
½ tspsoy sauce
½ tspdark brown sugar
  for the stock
10g/.35ozdried porcini mushrooms
1 tbspsoy sauce
1½ tbspwhite wine vinegar
1 tspsugar
1 tspbrandy
1 tspcornflour (aka cornstarch)
  for the main dish
200g/7ozbutton/chestnut mushrooms
⅓ cup/80mlneutral oil such as sunflower or groundnut
1 tbspwhole black peppercorns
1 mediumfresh red chilli, thinly sliced, deseeded if you're sensitive to heat
3 largecloves garlic, very finely chopped, crushed or grated
1½ tbsp/10gvery finely chopped or grated ginger
4spring onions (aka scallions), chopped, white ends separated from greens
700g/1.5lbsmedium or firm silken tofu (normally comes in small cardboard boxes) sliced into large cubes (I use this one and love it)*
1½ cups/285gbasmati rice, rinsed

Process:

  1. For the stock, put the dried mushrooms in a heat-proof jug or cup and pour over ¾ cup (180ml) boiling water. Place something like a food safe plastic lid on top of the mushrooms to keep them submerged. If you can't find something appropriate, use paper towels (although these are less ideal as they will absorb some of the stock). Set aside for 10 minutes.
  2. Use a fork or spoon to take out the now rehydrated mushrooms. Mix the soy sauce and shaoxing wine (but not the cornstarch yet) into the soaking liquid. Set aside. Finely chop the rehydrated mushrooms and transfer to a small bowl for later.
  3. For the main dish, chop the button/chestnut mushrooms into ½ cm/¼ inch pieces. This could also be done with a quick pulse in a food processor.
  4. Place a fine-mesh sieve (strainer) over a heatproof bowl in the sink. In a wok, heat the ⅓ cup oil over a high heat. Add the chopped fresh mushrooms and fry for 10-15 minutes. They will sputter so be careful. At first they will bubble a lot - this is normal. Eventually they will shrink down and crisp up.
  5. Once the mushrooms are crispy but before they burn, drain them through the sieve in the sink over the bowl. Put the fried mushrooms with the rehydrated shiitake mushrooms from earlier. Return the oil to the wok. Put the sieve and bowl back in the sink as you'll be using them again.
  6. Fry the whole szechuan peppercorns and red chilli for 1 minute in the wok. Drain the oil again through the sieve into the bowl. Discard the peppercorns and chilli but return the oil to the wok.
  7. Put the rice in a medium saucepan with 3 cups (750ml) boiling water. Put the lid on and cook over a med-low heat for 10 minutes, watching that the water doesn't boil over.
  8. Now stir fry the garlic, ginger and spring onions (scallions) over a high heat in the wok, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds. Quickly move onto the next step if they look like they're burning.
  9. Add the rehyrdated and fried mushrooms to the wok. Add the fermented bean paste too and stir so everything is coated.
  10. Use a fork to whisk the cornstarch into the stock. Now add this to the wok and stir. Cook for about 1½-2 minutes until the mixture has thickened.
  11. Carefully add the tofu and fold it in. Remove the wok from the heat.
  12. Sprinkle over the ½ tbsp ground szechuan peppercorns and some of the chopped green parts of the spring onions. Fluff up the rice with a fork then divide into 4 bowls. Spoon over the mapo tofu and serve.