I eat a lot of plant-based meals, but often the fact that they don't contain meat is beside the point. So it's one of my pet peeves when a recipe, restaurant or brand makes a bigger deal out of what a meatless dish isn't than what it is.
This Vegetarian Mapo Tofu slides right into the meat-free category without a lot of fuss. My previous forays into a vegan version of the Sichuan staple have veered to either extreme – lots of work to try to replicate the texture and flavor of the ground pork it's usually made with (it was good, but it's more than I can manage, even on a weekend) or no attempt at something else to add a bit of heft and savory oomph in lieu of the meat.
Food writer and cookbook author Diana Kuan's recipe resides at a nice middle point between the two. Maybe that's because it's designed not so much as an analogue to a meat version but as an accurate representation of a vegetarian dish that Kuan discovered when she was living in China.
Like the more well-known formulations with meat, this recipe includes Sichuan peppercorns for an almost piney flavor and that trademark mouth-numbing sensation. Savory funk to balance the spice comes from black bean sauce, made with fermented black beans, and chili bean paste, which adds another layer of fermented beans plus the heat of hot peppers. Rehydrated and fried shiitake mushrooms contribute depth and body. As an added bonus, the soaking water gets used as the umami-rich backbone of the "luscious sauce," as Kuan puts it. It comes together in a dish you won't be able to stop eating, regardless of how tingly your tongue becomes.
For the best results, you might need to do a bit of extra ingredient scouting, either in person or online. I found black bean sauce (the alternative Kuan suggests for fermented black beans) at my local supermarket; the jars might also be labeled "garlic black bean sauce." The chili bean paste/sauce required a trip to my go-to Asian market, as did the soft tofu.
With some input from Kuan, who just published her second cookbook, "Red Hot Kitchen," I also attempted a specialty-free version. I used dark miso instead of the black bean sauce and a mix of hoisin, chili oil and sambal oelek (a chili sauce that's easier to find) instead of the chili bean paste. I tried it with firm tofu, too. Tasters agreed that it was good – as a spicy tofu dish, not mapo tofu. We missed the vibrant red sauce, the hard-to-replicate fermented bean flavor and the tender bite of the soft tofu. Kuan says anything from soft to firm is fine to use, however. Alas, there's nothing that can mimic the tongue-tingling presence (the "ma" in the name) of Sichuan peppercorns.
If you're interested in adding mapo tofu to your repertoire of make-at-home takeout favorites – and you should, since it's delicious and easy to pull together – the hunt for the right ingredients is worth it. You'll have no problem burning through them with this recipe in hand.
Vegetarian Mapo Tofu
This meat-free version of a popular Sichuan dish boasts tender tofu draped in a savory, mouth-numbing sauce. The characteristic tongue-tingling comes from Sichuan peppercorns.
Food writer Diana Kuan prefers soft or medium tofu here, but firm will work as well.
Serve with steamed rice.
Where to Buy: Black bean sauce, which may be labeled as garlic black bean sauce, is available at well-stocked supermarkets. Chili bean paste (or sauce) and Sichuan peppercorns are available at Asian markets or online. For best flavor, grind the peppercorns just before you use them.
Adapted from a recipe by Diana Kuan at AppetiteForChina.com.
1 ounce (about 12) dried shiitake mushrooms
1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons chili bean paste
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine; may substitute dry sherry)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper, or more as needed
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons black bean sauce
3 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal, white and green parts separated
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, minced (1 teaspoon)
1 block tofu (soft, medium or firm; about 1 pound), drained and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
Combine the shiitake mushrooms and cup of warm water in a mixing bowl. Soak for 15 to 20 minutes, then lift out the mushrooms and transfer to a cutting board, squeezing as much moisture out of them as you can back into the bowl. Reserve the soaking water, straining it if it has grit or dirt. Discard the stems, then finely chop the shiitake mushroom caps.
Add the chili bean paste, rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar and Sichuan pepper (to taste) to the bowl of mushroom soaking water, stirring to incorporate. This will be your sauce.
Heat a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. It is hot enough when a bead of water sizzles and evaporates on contact.
Add the peanut or vegetable oil and swirl to coat. Add the minced mushrooms; stir-fry for 2 minutes, until the mushrooms are crispy. Reduce the heat to medium; add the black bean sauce, white parts of the scallions, garlic and ginger; stir-fry for about 1 minute, until fragrant.
Pour in the mushroom-mixture sauce; once the liquid starts to boil, reduce to a gentle bubbling over medium-low heat. The liquid in the pan should be a nice red color. Gently add the tofu cubes, being careful to not move them around too much so they don't break up. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes so the tofu cooks and absorbs the sauce. You can spoon some of the sauce over the tofu cubes to help better coat them.
Carefully push the tofu to the sides and create a small well at the center of the pan. Stir in the cornstarch mixture there. Cook for another minute, until the sauce has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Transfer to a deep plate or wide bowl, sprinkle the scallion greens on top with additional Sichuan pepper as needed, and serve hot.
Nutrition (based on 6 servings): 140 calories; 10 g total fat; 2 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 700 mg sodium; 10 g carbohydrates; 0 g dietary fiber; 2 g sugars; 4 g protein.