Ma po tofu, sometimes translated as “pockmarked-face lady’s tofu,” is a spicy tofu dish slathered with a rich, savory sauce of chiles, minced meat, and spices, almost like Chinese chili con carne, with the numbing power of Sichuan peppercorns. At Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, they marinate a hunk of pork shoulder, grind it, stew it up in a fiery and fragrant blend of freshly ground spices, and mix in some tofu just before serving. Mission Chinese Food’s chef, Danny Bowien, advises serving leftover sauce over sautéed Chinese long beans or eggplant.
What to buy: Chinese black vinegar is a robustly flavored rice vinegar that can be found at most Asian markets. Make sure it is not labeled “sweetened black vinegar.”
Fermented black beans, known as douchi in Chinese, are soybeans that have been salted and fermented, turning them black, soft, and dry. These savory, salty, and somewhat sweet and bitter beans are used as a flavoring agent throughout Chinese cooking. Fermented black beans can be found in the dry goods section of most Asian markets.
If you can’t find soft tofu, substitute firm, but do not use silken tofu, as its soft texture will disintegrate into the sauce.
Beech mushrooms, also called clamshell or hon-shimeji, originate from Southeast Asia and are popular in Japan. These small, white or brown capped fungi are sweet and nutty and keep their shape nicely when cooked, lending themselves well to stews, soups, and sauces. They can be found at many Asian grocers, though sliced button or baby bella mushrooms can be substituted if needed.
Special equipment: You’ll need a meat grinder for this recipe. We used the special attachments for a KitchenAid stand mixer.
You’ll also need a spice or coffee grinder. We used this Krups coffee grinder with good results.
Game plan: Since this recipe makes 12 cups of meat sauce and you only need 3 cups for the ma po tofu, freeze the leftovers for a simple weeknight meal.
For the sauce: