The other day I read that due to La Nina, the winter of 2016-17 will likely be a bit colder than usual, and depending on where you live, a little wetter, too. Here in Santa Cruz, it’s been chillier than normal, drizzly and in the mornings somewhat foggy. The dreariness and cooler temperatures led me to make a batch of Sichuan mapo tofu (ma po dou fu in Mandarin). It’s a dish that I’ve loved since I was about ten years old.
Mapo tofu is a dish that I traveled to Chengdu in Sichuan Province to investigate while writing the Asian Tofu cookbook. My friends and I even ate at the original mapo tofu restaurant, only to be disappointed with an imbalance of flavors -- too much spicy heat to the point where you couldn't taste anything, and it was super oily like a lot of food in mainland China. Sichuan food is about balancing flavors, we were told over and over. It's not about blowing out your taste buds.
I've been making mapo tofu for decades and have gained a fair amount of insights. For excellent mapo tofu, choose tofu with a little give to it. That is, no super-firm tofu sold in vacuum-sealed packages. That stuff is great for baked tofu or grating because it’s incredibly dense. In saucy preparations like mapo tofu, it doesn’t absorb flavors well. It’s just rubbery and fights with the sauce.