The Dyke Kitchen: Bold, Tingly, Spicy Mapo Tofu

he Dyke Kitchen written over a drippy yellow shape that has checkerboard at the ends

The Dyke Kitchen is a bi-weekly series about how queerness, identity, culture and love are expressed through food and cooking.


I’ve taken great joy in tofu as long as I’ve been a food-chewing human. I grew up eating tofu weekly over rice, prepared in a very simple way: cut in big squares that were pan-fried with a few cloves of smashed garlic and soy sauce. My parents liked to remind me that rice and tofu made a complete amino acid — so it was an ideal and healthy combination. I’ve always just been comforted by its smooth texture and the very delicately beany taste mixed with soy sauce — they go together like long lost twins.

Later, when I went to college at Oberlin, where my parents met, I found out that my mom had not only been in the MOST hippie-dippie of co-ops, which was appropriately vegan, but was the head tofu maker there too. So I began to learn what she loves about tofu. Through a couple of trips to Japan, where we had exquisite examples of tofu, and an unsatisfactory attempt to make our own batch, I now appreciate the textures, flavors and the process of making tofu even more. I am a particular sucker for soft or silken tofu for its custard-like texture. I also like the yuba, which is a skin that forms when the soy milk is cooking and has uniquely squeaky, satisfying bite.

Anyway, this passion for tofu was something that my mom shared in a group chat with my girlfriend not long after they met. It was a video of a shop in Portland, OR, where Sarah lives, called Ota Tofu, and they make fresh tofu by hand. My mom expressed how much she wanted to taste it. So when we all met in Oakland to share a Thanksgiving meal with my parents, Sarah decided to surprise my mom and bring along a casual eight blocks of fresh tofu over to her house — a very generous gift that my mom loved!

Ultimately my mom decided that maybe four blocks was really all she needed — a soft, medium, firm, extra firm — so I took home a soft and medium for myself. My sister made a delicious kimchi jigae with one of the blocks and I’m eating the soft tofu raw, in a bowl, scattered with scallions and sesame seeds and a light cheery blossom soy sauce.

With the medium block, I decided to make mapo tofu. I like that it’s a really bold, flavorful dish, where the tofu cubes play an important textural element and act as a little fluffy islands in a sea of chiles. The original dish is Sichuan, and so uses a lot of chilies and some numbing peppercorns, which I used here, but my seasonings and sauces lean more on my Japanese pantry. That said, this mapo tofu still gives you soft tofu in a spicy, glossy sauce with bits of pork, and it’s SOO flavorful and satisfying, especially on a cool day. As always, you can make this without pork and just add more mushrooms or other vegetables, and you can adjust the spice level too. Oh, and don’t forget to complete the amino acid and eat it with rice!

close up of a bowl of mapo tofu over rice with a star of sliced scallions on top

How To Make Mapo Tofu

Ingredients

4 tablespoons fried chili in oil, like this one or this one or you can make your own, but this is one of the main flavor ingredients so you need one you like
1 lb ground pork
16 oz medium-pressed tofu, you can also use soft
30 oz shiitake mushroom
4 scallions
4 garlic cloves
1 inch ginger
1 1/2 cups cubed squash, I used delicata but another would work
2 cups broth, chicken, vegetable, dashi all work
2 tablespoon corn starch
3 teaspoons sugar
3 teaspoons miso
2 tablespoons mirin
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce + a little extra for the pork
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon black garlic molasses
1 teaspoon ground chili powder
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns, these have a tingly numbing effect and an almost citrusy pepper flavor, but they’re not exactly hot
4 teaspoons salt or more to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil

Directions

This one has a lot of liquid ingredients, so I first started by getting them out from their various homes in my kitchen.

a line up of sauces in jars and bottles: dashi, mirin, chili powder, chili crisp, soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil, garlic vinegar

To prep the tofu, I removed it from its packaging and poured out the water. I placed 4 paper towels in a strainer, and put the block of tofu on top. Using two more paper towels, I gently pressed it on all sides to remove the excess water. You can also do this with clean dish towels, but I get weirded out by potentially rouge towel fibers sticking to the tofu.

tofu in a strainer on top of paper towels

Next, I started chopping up all of my aromatics and produce. First off, I minced my garlic and ginger and just the white parts of the scallions. I separated each pile in half, reserving one part to mix in with the pork and the other part to cook in the pot to start off the dish.

Then I put my ground pork in a bowl, added a teaspoon of salt, half of the garlic, ginger and scallions whites, a splash of soy sauce and mixed it up with my hands.

ground pork in a bowl with onions, garlic and ginger on top

I went back to my board to chop the squash into cubes, slice the greens of the scallions into pretty large pieces and slice the shiitakes into slivers, and cut my tofu into cubes — once through the middle of the block and then into a 3 x 3 grid.

a red cutting board with green onions and blocks of tofu cut up on it

Before I heated my pot — and I used my cast-iron enamel dutch oven, but any pot will do — I went to measure out 2 cups of broth and set that aside. I also made a slurry with the cornstarch, shaking it in a jar with a tablespoon of water. Then, to make things easy on myself, I put the sugar, miso, mirin, soy sauce, fish sauce and black garlic molasses and sesame oil together in a liquid measuring cup and stirred it all up with a fork to combine it.

Then, I set my pot over medium heat, poured in the olive oil, and cooked the rest of the garlic, ginger and scallion whites until they were soft, but not brown.

Next, I added in the ground pork. and let it cook til it had a few browned spots, but it wasn’t cooked all the way through. You can break it up with a spoon a little, but it’s okay to have a few chunks and it tends to melt into the sauce when you simmer it anyway.

Your tofu goes in next with the squash and the shiitakes. And in a few more teaspoons of salt and I let them all cook together for about 5 min.

Next up are the chilies in oil. In addition to giving the dish a lot of earthy flavors, this does determine a lot of the spice level, so you should taste your chilies and decide if you want to do all  4 tablespoons or maybe even add an extra. I decided to give mine an extra spice kick by adding ground Sunnam chilies with the oil, but you don’t have to do that either.

mapo tofu in the making! pot with tofu chunks, pork, squash, shiitakes and chilies

Stir everything up so the oil is well-distributed, and then add the broth. Once it’s warm, though it doesn’t need to simmer, you will then add in the mix you’ve made of the sugar and many sauces, followed by the cornstarch slurry. Mix all of this together well.

mapo tofu simmering on the stove

Finally, you’ll toss in the scallion greens and your teaspoon of whole Sichuan peppercorns. Bring everything to a low simmer and then keep it there for 20-30 min. It’s a gentle cook. If the mixture is a little dry or thick, you can add in more water, but the corn starch will give it a glossier, saucier feel.

When your squash is tender and done, that’s when you know you can dig in!

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Kamala Puligandla lives in LA and is the writer of various autobiographical fictions. She is the distinguished recipient of her parents' leftovers and hair compliments from strangers on the street. Her first novel is forthcoming from Not A Cult. Find her work at kamalapuligandla.com.

Kamala has written 50 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. hey, i went to oberlin and if you’re talking about harkness i was in there too! i was tasty things maker but ohhhh boy did i participate in a lot of tofu eating and tofu cooking. this looks so good!

  2. This isn’t mapo tofu?? I understand cooking with the ingredients that you have, and mapo tofu requires ingredients that aren’t in a lot of people’s pantries. But also I don’t think it’s super respectful to call it mapo tofu if the only similarity is that it’s a tofu dish that includes Sichuan peppercorns and ground pork.

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