19 votes

Anyone who says tofu is bland or boring hasn’t eaten mapo tofu, the intoxicatingly spicy, fragrant dish from the Sichuan Province of China

19 comments

  1. [3]
    cfabbro
    (edited )
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    To be fair, anyone who says tofu is bland is not really wrong, per se, since on its own it is exactly that... it's just the seasoning, sauces, and whatnot you cook it in and serve it with that...

    To be fair, anyone who says tofu is bland is not really wrong, per se, since on its own it is exactly that... it's just the seasoning, sauces, and whatnot you cook it in and serve it with that gives it any significant flavor.

    Even though I have eaten and love a ton of soy and tofu dishes, I've never actually had mapo though, so I will have to give it a try some time!

    p.s. Tempeh (fungus inoculated, fermented soybeans) and Natto (bacteria inoculated, fermented soybeans) are actually super tasty on their own though. Tempeh is very toasty/nutty tasting which is absolutely lovely just pan fried in a little neutral oil until crispy and golden, and Natto actually has such a strong funky/cheesy/earthy smell and taste that you even have to tone down by eating it over plain white rice (ideally with some fresh scallions too) or it can be pretty overwhelming. And while I haven't had the chance to try any of the various regional Chinese styles of "stinky tofu" yet, I imagine they're similar to Natto as well.

    13 votes
    1. [2]
      knocklessmonster
      Link Parent
      I can't get into natto. I tried, I hit it with the sauces that it came with over rice, sriracha, rice vinegar (it felt like it was missing something, and it worked), and it was something I'll...

      I can't get into natto. I tried, I hit it with the sauces that it came with over rice, sriracha, rice vinegar (it felt like it was missing something, and it worked), and it was something I'll never do at home again. I will totally order it if I'm ever in a restaurant to get a better experience from somebody who understands it better than I do.

      I like tempeh, though. It doesn't have the same acrid funk of natto.

      And tofu is good for carrying flavor, as it probably does in mapo tofu. A local ramen shop has a vegetarian ramen with "seasoned tofu," which is seasoned like their eggs, and it carries the flavor really well, as an example.

      4 votes
      1. cfabbro
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        LOL, yeah even the gooey, stringy texture of Natto alone took some getting used, at least from my squeamish Western perspective, but I tend to love really funky food already (e.g. super strong...

        LOL, yeah even the gooey, stringy texture of Natto alone took some getting used, at least from my squeamish Western perspective, but I tend to love really funky food already (e.g. super strong Stilton/Blue cheeses), so it was already up my alley in that regard. Next time you try it, I would suggest maybe going with half the amount of Natto you tried before, and eat it over even more rice. The more you cut it, the more you might be able to appreciate the complexity of its taste, instead of just being punched in the face by its pungency.

        1 vote
  2. [8]
    grahamiam
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    Link
    Tofu is not that different from white meat chicken in that it has very little flavor on its own but can pick up flavor really well, so like /u/cfabbro I agree that this headline is misleading....

    Tofu is not that different from white meat chicken in that it has very little flavor on its own but can pick up flavor really well, so like /u/cfabbro I agree that this headline is misleading. That said, here in Taiwan there are a lot more kinds of tofu than the firm/soft/medium packages found in US groceries. My favorites are tofu adjacent products: 花干, 豆干,豆皮 。 Hua gan and dou gan are soy bean curd, not tofu, but I'm still not sure the difference. They have less moisture and hua gan is usually cooked in a broth and soaks it up really well. The last one, dou pi, is tofu skin which can be cooked in a bunch of different ways and has a more interesting, almost fish-flaky texture. There's also the infamous stinky tofu, which smells horrendous but is only a little funky and more chewy when you're eating it, imo.

    A home cooking tip if you want to use tofu more at home - if you don't have access to amazing tofu, one way to improve average tofu's capabilities in a dish is to freeze it then thaw it and use it. This makes the huge amount of water inside the tofu expand, creating a ton of little pockets, which makes it more capable of taking on flavors/sauces/etc.

    Serious Eats has a fantastic vegan mapo recipe: https://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2013/02/the-best-vegan-mapo-tofu-recipe.html. I'm not sure how it is in China, but in Taiwan, mapo tofu has a pretty big range of possible flavors. You get some that are super spicy, some that are loaded on the peppercorns and so have that sharp numbing buzz, and some that almost border on sweet.

    9 votes
    1. [3]
      acdw
      Link Parent
      Thanks so much for this recipe! I am really excited to try it. The local Chinese place that carries mapo tofu (the first time I had it actually) does it vegetarian. However, I found out the hard...

      Thanks so much for this recipe! I am really excited to try it.

      The local Chinese place that carries mapo tofu (the first time I had it actually) does it vegetarian. However, I found out the hard way not everyone does that -- ordered some in my hometown and it had beef all in it!

      4 votes
      1. [2]
        Bwerf
        Link Parent
        The "normal" way to make mapo dofu is with ground meat and tofu both, so if you're vegetarian that's something to keep in mind. In my experience vegetarian mapo dofu is much less common.

        The "normal" way to make mapo dofu is with ground meat and tofu both, so if you're vegetarian that's something to keep in mind. In my experience vegetarian mapo dofu is much less common.

        3 votes
        1. acdw
          Link Parent
          I figured it probably was "normal" -- the first place was a Japanese/Chinese fusion type thing, so they might do it different as a matter of course. The second place is pretty standard fare...

          I figured it probably was "normal" -- the first place was a Japanese/Chinese fusion type thing, so they might do it different as a matter of course. The second place is pretty standard fare (though now I'm not sure what kind of Chinese food it is; I know there's a ton of variations), so it makes sense that they had beef.

          2 votes
    2. [4]
      dotsforeyes
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      I visited Taiwan a couple of times. Tofu there was delicious. I actually prefer it to what I've had of Japanese tofu since Japanese tofu tends towards the softer side. I'm not a big fan of spicy...

      I visited Taiwan a couple of times. Tofu there was delicious. I actually prefer it to what I've had of Japanese tofu since Japanese tofu tends towards the softer side.

      I'm not a big fan of spicy food and the mapo I tried there was spicy! But I could probably subsist several days on just pidan tofu (those cubes of cold tofu topped with century egg and what i think is pork floss and sauce?) from Taiwan. So good!

      Tofu doesn't have strong flavor but brings a freshness to rich foods and a sort of tangy nuttiness to light flavors.

      Didn't know about that freezer water trick, will try it over here, thank you for your advice!

      3 votes
      1. [2]
        Akir
        Link Parent
        Did you try the fried stinky tofu? It's a bit too much funk for me, but it does have a really unique delicious flavor and texture. Combine it with a sweet/spicy dipping sauce and you've got a...

        Did you try the fried stinky tofu? It's a bit too much funk for me, but it does have a really unique delicious flavor and texture. Combine it with a sweet/spicy dipping sauce and you've got a party going on.

        Taiwan has a lot of really good dishes that most people don't know much about. Everyone should try three cup chicken at least once in their lives. And I don't know if it's strictly Taiwanese, but Gua Bao is a really delicious mid-meal filler, made with braised pork belly and pickled mustard greens wrapped in a super soft steamed bun. And if you like fried chicken, you owe it to yourself to try their style of popcorn chicken.

        My go-to comfort food is a local Taiwanese restaurant, which serves this crazy good fried pork chop alongside rice with minced pork on top and two different types of pickles. It's like soul food.

        4 votes
        1. dotsforeyes
          Link Parent
          The soul food description is spot on. They cook their food to be comfortable, even the dishes that don't seem like comfort food staples. I did indeed try the stinky tofu but without the dipping...

          The soul food description is spot on. They cook their food to be comfortable, even the dishes that don't seem like comfort food staples. I did indeed try the stinky tofu but without the dipping sauce. I bought it from a vendor in shilin market, and it was..... alright. Haha I can't remember how it tasted, either bad or good. If the oppertunity ever arises again, I'll be sure to find a vendor with dipping sauce.

          The three-cup chicken is wonderful! It's really the little restaurants that serve it best. We have a friend who was from the area and brought us to tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants with just amazing three-cup-chicken and beef noodles.

          On the ironic side, I ate at a lot of great places in Taiwan but for some reason what I miss the most is fast food chain TKK's chicken skin fried rice and sweet potato fries. It's basically a pillow of chicken skin stuffed and fried with rice that was cooked in chicken stock then mixed with meat. Unhealthy but also worth it haha

          2 votes
      2. Bwerf
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        Well, mapo dofu is the signature dish of the sichuan cuisine, known for being one of the most chili-heavy cuisines in the world. You can of course make it with less chili, the sichuan pepper isn't...

        Well, mapo dofu is the signature dish of the sichuan cuisine, known for being one of the most chili-heavy cuisines in the world. You can of course make it with less chili, the sichuan pepper isn't very strong in itself (it's what gives the tingly numbing feeling in the tongue).

        This is how wikipedia describes the sichuan cuisine: "It has bold flavours, particularly the pungency and spiciness resulting from liberal use of garlic and chili peppers, as well as the unique flavour of Sichuan pepper".

        I can also vouch for the freezing the tofu trick, but I'd add that to get the most out of it you should press the water out of the tofu. You can buy a tofu press, but in my experince just putting the tofu block between two cutboards and then pressing on them will work just as well.

        4 votes
  3. [3]
    acdw
    Link
    I still want to try making tofu on my own at home. I hear that it has a really great, delicate flavor when fresh. I don't mind the packed stuff on its own, sans anything, but it's got that kind of...

    I still want to try making tofu on my own at home. I hear that it has a really great, delicate flavor when fresh. I don't mind the packed stuff on its own, sans anything, but it's got that kind of ... old flavor that I think is because it's been sitting in plastic for x days.

    5 votes
    1. [2]
      Bwerf
      Link Parent
      It's pretty easy to make tofu, but you don't get much for the amount of soy beans you put into it. I've made it twice and it was fun, but to me it wasn't worth the effort to do as a regular thing.

      It's pretty easy to make tofu, but you don't get much for the amount of soy beans you put into it. I've made it twice and it was fun, but to me it wasn't worth the effort to do as a regular thing.

      6 votes
      1. acdw
        Link Parent
        Hmmm, that's good to know, thanks! I'll try it sometime but hold off on getting it in the regular rotation.

        Hmmm, that's good to know, thanks! I'll try it sometime but hold off on getting it in the regular rotation.

        3 votes
  4. SantalBlush
    Link
    There are two restaurants in my town that make mapo tofu, and the difference in quality is enormous. One location serves one of the most flavorful meals I've had, the other serves a watery mess...

    There are two restaurants in my town that make mapo tofu, and the difference in quality is enormous. One location serves one of the most flavorful meals I've had, the other serves a watery mess that just tastes like Szechuan peppercorns. If someone were to try mapo tofu at the latter restaurant, they would have no idea what all the hype is about.

    So this is a general PSA: if you're trying something new and rather different from what you're used to--especially when it comes to food--make sure you're getting a decent version of it, or you almost certainly won't understand the hype.

    5 votes
  5. vegai
    Link
    I used to screw up every tofu dish I made, until I found what I was screwing up. Tofu needs to be dried before frying. My simple recipe: Get preseasoned, high quality tofu. Two kitchen towels,...

    I used to screw up every tofu dish I made, until I found what I was screwing up. Tofu needs to be dried before frying.

    My simple recipe:

    Get preseasoned, high quality tofu.

    Two kitchen towels, wrap the tofu inside them and let them stay there for 2-4 hours. Some people change the towels for dry ones in the middle. Paper towels work too, and are probably faster.

    Fry them on a dry pan, no oil, on every side until they’re brown. Then add some oil and fry them for a minute.

    4 votes
  6. [3]
    FishFingus
    (edited )
    Link
    My mum is a culinary whiz. She sometimes knocks together this fantastic dish of white rice, chopped chillies and black bean sauce. A fantastic snack or component of a larger ensemble. Tofu is like...

    My mum is a culinary whiz. She sometimes knocks together this fantastic dish of white rice, chopped chillies and black bean sauce. A fantastic snack or component of a larger ensemble. Tofu is like rice. Not much on its own, but so good when you use other ingredients to get the most out of it.

    EDIT: There's also douhua, which is a delicious dessert or snack of soft tofu pudding. There used to sometimes be an elderly gentleman who would wheel a bicycle around our housing estate and bellow "DOUHUAAA!", and we'd rush downstairs to buy a couple of styrofoam tubs of it. It was delicious with sugary syrup, though I'm sure it's eaten lots of other ways.

    3 votes
    1. [2]
      cfabbro
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      Douhua is one of my absolute favs, especially the Cantonese style served in ginger syrup and topped with coconut or condensed milk. It's super light, silky and refreshing, and the perfect dish to...

      Douhua is one of my absolute favs, especially the Cantonese style served in ginger syrup and topped with coconut or condensed milk. It's super light, silky and refreshing, and the perfect dish to end Dim Sum on. And at the place I used to regularly go to for Dim Sum in the Mississauga Chinese Centre they would cart it around in this giant wooden tub that was so big you could probably comfortably bathe in it if you wanted to. :P

      2 votes
      1. FishFingus
        Link Parent
        Wooden tubs and bamboo steamers are the way to go. Back when my mum was short, there was a restaurant down the road that would provide lunch for local factory workers, and what they did was take...

        Wooden tubs and bamboo steamers are the way to go. Back when my mum was short, there was a restaurant down the road that would provide lunch for local factory workers, and what they did was take all the filled bowls and cutlery and wrap them up in a big tablecloth bundle, then carry the lot over to them. So many fun, quirky things that were considered normal that I miss now. Like bamboo scaffolding.

        2 votes