Searching for Perfect: Ma Po Tofu
Words: Delaney Mes. Photo: Ken Downie.
Not to denigrate those hand-pulled noodles, fabulously spiced whole fish and flat-bread burgers, but the Chinese dish that has really opened up a whole new world of feasting is ma po tofu. Silken tofu, pork mince, fermented black beans usually, and Sichuan pepper: a squidgy, red-brown, unattractive taste sensation.
My sister even emailed me excitedly about it, to say Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese in New York does “the best-ever ma po tofu”. With a pang of disappointment that I could not test this accolade myself, I began my search for the best in Auckland.
First up, Balmoral’s Shaolin Kung Fu Noodles, which specialises in food from Henan, a Muslim region in eastern China notable for its liberal use of cumin. The xinjiang lamb fried noodles, the cleaver beef in broth and the cucumber salad are always on the table when we go there. This time we added ma po tofu.
It was heavier on the pepper than I was used to, and because of that it wasn’t among our usual favourites. It had that tongue-numbing effect that Sichuan pepper provides but, in combination with chilli heat, it overwhelmed everything else on the table.
I let ma po tofu be the star on my next outing — a solo lunch date to Jolin that saw me trek a fair way up Dominion Rd towards the Eden Quarter precinct. Jolin is well known for its dumplings (the large ones filled with sweet pork mince and half-fried in crispy sesame seeds are especially good) and was in the throes of a bustling lunch trade.
I settled into the corner table and this time ordered only ma po tofu (okay, and maybe a few dumplings).
It was a bargain at $8, and came with rice, which isn’t always the case, and it was delicious. The rice was glutinous, and soaked up the bright red chilli as it should, and there was nothing too challenging as far as texture was concerned.
The pork was in small strips rather than minced, which I enjoyed, and it had the kind of heat that warms your face from the inside, leaving you with perfectly flushed cheeks. Divine.
Stepping things up a notch in price and ambience, The Blue Breeze Inn on Ponsonby Rd has a version inspired by the original. The food here can be as good as the best on Dominion Rd, but with a different level of service and a glass of good wine.
Their silken tofu dish features minced wild boar instead of ordinary pork, giving the dish more gaminess and an interesting texture.
It’s more a boar dish than a tofu dish though; the tofu remains in cubes and there wasn’t quite enough for me. It was swimming in a very good chilli sauce, and traditionally garnished with a small colour pop of spring onion. It was very tasty but, at $26 (plus $3 for rice), it was pricey — like much of Ponsonby Rd food.
We ended up where we began, halfway down Dominion Rd, for a cheap takeaway feast, because by this point I’d developed a taste for ma po tofu and I wanted it all the time. Spicy House did not disappoint: their version has plenty of mince, plenty of soft tofu throughout and a good whack of heat. We feasted until we could eat no more.
New York? After food as good as that lot — and with many more Auckland joints still to try — I’m really not fussed.
MY MA PO TOFU
Thanks to Shirleen Oh for sharing her recipe.
500g block silken tofu (the softest you can find)
200g pork mince (get it ground at the butcher if you’d like it coarse)
2 tbsp cooking oil
3 tbsp chilli oil
2 gloves garlic, chopped
3 tbsp spicy bean sauce (I use Lee Kum Kee)
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp fermented black beans
½ cup water
1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns,
dry toasted and ground to powder (reduce if necessary to taste)
2 spring onion stalks, cut into 3cm pieces
Cut the tofu into small pieces, drain and set aside.
Heat a wok and add the cooking oil and chilli oil, chopped garlic, pork and spicy bean sauce, and stir-fry until the pork is half-done.
Add the soy sauce and black beans and stir-fry until aromatic. Add the tofu and water and stir gently (try not to break the tofu). Lower the heat and simmer for 3-5 mins or until the sauce thickens.
Add the peppercorn powder and spring onions. Gently stir and blend well. Season to taste. Serve hot with jasmine rice and stir-fried Asian greens on the side.
Delaney Mes blogs at heartbreakpie.com.