By all accounts, Mrs Chen wasn’t blessed with good looks. She had a face so disfigured that she was thought to have leprosy. She was often described as a lady who had been stung by a plague of wasps and had an acid tongue to go with it. She was also a widow.
Mr Chen died early. On the one hand, he couldn’t live with being vilified by a society unforgiving of Mrs Chen’s looks. On the other, his brittle heart couldn’t stand the daily lashings of his wife’s stinging words. He died a broken man.
Mrs Chen, penniless, was banished to the outskirts of Chengdu city in Sichuan, to ensure she didn’t spread disease to the wider population.
But out of adversity came opportunity. Mrs Chen was banished to a busy trading post; a well-trodden road frequented by hungry workers earning their living transporting goods. With no restaurant in sight, they often brought food for Mrs Chen to cook for them. For poor weary travellers, this was mostly tofu and meat. As time went on, Mrs Chen perfected a unique way to cook tofu and her restaurant became well-known for it. Travellers came far and wide to sample her dish. Even Mrs Chen’s constant profanity weren’t enough to keep hungry travellers away.*
The dish she created became known as ‘tofu cooked by the old pock-marked woman called Chen’, or Chen ma po tofu.
We know it today as ma po tofu.
Ma po tofu is probably Sichuan cuisine’s most recognisable dish. Silken tofu is cooked with chilli bean paste, minced pork and Sichuan peppers to combine for a sizzling, spicy, numbing flavour. The numbing comes from the Sichuan peppercorn, which is not related to black pepper at all. The plant is part of the citrus family.
Make no bones about it, I am not a fan of tofu. On its own it’s tasteless and bland. But it’s like a sponge and carries flavour so well. In this dish it is the hero. The pork is the support act.
And until this week I had never cooked it from scratch. I have used the recipe from Neil Perry’s Balance and Harmony, probably my favourite cook book.
- 300g silken tofu, cut into 2cm cubes
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 200g minced pork belly (or minced pork will do it)
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 2 spring onions, sliced (I didn’t have any, so I garnished with coriander)
- 2 tablespoons hot bean paste
- 125ml fresh chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon shaoxing rice wine
- 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
- A good pinch of Sichuan pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
- Grind the Sichuan pepper in a pestle and mortar until fine (ground to perfection here by my handy assistant and daughter).
- Heat a wok until smoking.
- Add the vegetable oil and, when hot, add the minced pork and stir-fry until browned.
- Then add the garlic, spring onions and bean paste and stir-fry until fragrant.
- Add the stock, shaoxing, soy sauces, sugar and salt.
- Bring to the boil, add the tofu and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, allowing the liquid to thicken slightly. Add the Sichuan pepper and sesame oil and gently mix together.
- Serve with jasmine rice.