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Recipe: Sichuan Mapo Tofu

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Mapo tofu by Theresa Lin | Photo by Clarissa Wei
Mapo tofu by Theresa Lin | Photo by Clarissa Wei

Mapo tofu is a classic Sichuan dish. It's soft tofu cubes, swimming in a wonderful sauce of garlic-infused chili and ground pork. The secret ingredient is the Sichuan peppercorn -- a spice that will numb your tongue and produce a citrusy aftertaste. Like with any dish, there are an infinite number of permutations to the order and ingredients. My recipe is inspired by Theresa Lin -- dubbed "the Julia Child of Taiwan" by Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee.

Lin was the food stylist for the Oscar-nominated movie "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman;" a former television personality back in her Taiwan days; and the author of 16 cookbooks. Today, she resides in Rancho Cucamonga and is the host of a Sunday morning Chinese radio program where she doles out cooking tips to eager listeners. I spent an evening at her home, where she made mapo tofu for me and broke down the process step by step.

The dish took her ten minutes to whip up, but take your time with this. Feel free to adjust the peppercorn amount if you can't take the heat. Do all the prep beforehand, fire up some white rice, and get a wok ready.

Mapo Tofu
This recipe was inspired by Theresa Lin. Serves 4.

1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tbsp ground Sichuan peppercorns
1 tsp minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks green onion, minced
1/4 ground pork
3 tbsp sambal sauce (I use the Huy Fong brand)
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp vinegar
1 block soft tofu, drained and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp sesame oil
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 tbsp cornstarch
2 tsp peppercorn chili oil

Heat up the wok to high heat and then add oil. Put in the 1 tablespoon of peppercorns, and let it sit for about one minute. Take out the peppercorns.

Turn the heat down to medium. Add minced ginger, garlic, and a pinch of the green onions. These are the three basic aromatics of Chinese cooking. Sautee for a couple of seconds, then add ground pork.

Throw in the sambal sauce and soy sauce. Add a teaspoon of vinegar, but to the side of the wok.

Add in the tofu, fold gently and be careful not to break the pieces.

Next, add the sugar and sesame oil, then 1/4 cup chicken stock. Bring to a boil.

Add corn starch and stir for 20 seconds until the mixture is thickened, then add peppercorn chili oil. Turn heat off.

Garnish with the remaining green onions. Serve over white rice.

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