My father-in-law lives in a ‘small village’ outside of Shanghai. He moved there from Taiwan to retire. The first time my husband and I went to visit him years ago, we were both expecting the quintessential village he made his new home of Kunshan out to be. I still tease my father-in-law about his misrepresentation of his village, because it’s in fact a mid-range (by China’s standards) city of 1.65 million people. I guess it’s all perspective. When you live in a country of 1.3 billion, a mere 1.65 million can take on more of a village feel. My husband and I have visited my father-in-law in China several times. We’re to the point where we don’t need to play the role of tourists when we visit. We’re there for the sole reason to spend time with him and his wife. These visits usually consist of going to the local markets to shop for ingredients so we can cook together.
Cooking with my father-in-law is very similar to spending time in the kitchen with my mother-in-law. I have to run around asking him to use measuring spoons and cups so I can translate his dishes into recipes. During our last visit, I was armed with camera, notebook and laptop so I would be guaranteed to capture many of the recipes we made together.
One of my favorite dishes is my father-in-law’s Mapo Tofu. The mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns are fragrant yet not too spicy. The flavor of Mapo Tofu is distinctly Sichuan. This is an easy dish and a good intro to Chinese cooking. It’s a nice dish to make on a fall or winter evening. The subtle heat will warm your body.
My kitchen notes
Black bean sauce is easy to find at Asian markets, and possibly the Asian aisle of a conventional grocery store. There are many brands to choose from. My favorite is the ‘old lady’ brand.
There are many different varieties of doubanjiang available at Asian markets. Ask for fermented red bean paste. Either of these pictured below will work.
Shao xing rice wine is available at Asian markets.
Sichuan peppercorns are easier to find with Chinese cooking gaining in popularity. I usually buy mine bulk at the Asian market, but you can also find them at high end conventional grocery stores. I grind them in a coffee grinder, or you can use a mortar and pestle.
Mapo Tofu – From the kitchen of Ming Hsu
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 pound ground pork
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped and divided
3 slices ginger, finely chopped
4 stalks green onion, chopped, green and white parts divided
1 tablespoon black bean sauce (see my kitchen notes)
2 tablespoons doubanjiang (fermented red bean paste, see my kitchen notes)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 pound soft tofu
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon rice wine (shao xing, see my kitchen notes)
2 teaspoons corn starch mixed with 1/4 cup warm water
1/2 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns (see my kitchen notes)
1/4 cup chicken stock (optional to use if most of the liquid cooks off and you want a soupy consistency.)
- Heat vegetable oil in a wok over medium high heat. Add ground pork and stir, until fully cooked, breaking up into small pieces. About 3-4 minutes.
2. Remove pork from the wok, leaving the oil, and set aside.
3. To the wok, add half of the chopped garlic, ginger and white parts of the green onions. Stir in oil until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes on medium to high heat.
4. Add black bean sauce and red bean paste to mixture. Stir to combine.
5. Add pork back into mixture and stir to combine.
6. Add tofu and break up with a spoon into small pieces. Stir to combine.
7. Add soy sauce, sugar and rice wine to pork/tofu mixture and combine.
8. Add corn starch water mixture and combine.
9. Add ground Sichuan pepper and rest of chopped garlic. Stir to combine.
10. Add chicken stock if the consistency is in need of being a bit more soupy.
11. Serve hot with steamed rice and topped with the green parts of green onions.