I’ve always thought of mapo tofu as the perfect Chinese food—it looks unhealthy, but it’s really not; it’s spicy, but there’s a lot of flavor to it; it’s made of tofu, but it’s not vegetarian. It’s just one of the greatest dishes and, with rice, it’s one of the greatest meals.
In 2006 mapo tofu was pretty much the only food I was eating. I’d pick it up from Grand Sichuan, which had just opened on St. Marks Place, and eat it at Ssäm Bar, which was just getting going at the time.
Joshua McFadden was in the kitchen then—he had been staging at Del Posto before joining up. If this were a music documentary about the creation of a hit song instead of a popular dish, he would have been the person who came up with the beat. He combined a Sichuan chili sauce with a mix of Italian ragu ingredients. I remember him struggling at the time; he wanted to contribute. And it was right there: I remember tasting it and being like, Holy shit, this guy just did a Chinese ragu.
And then everybody started to chime in. Tim Maslow was like, Oh, we need some texture, and then the fried shallots went on top. And then I was like, We should add the whipped tofu as a kind of dairy-like component. (We always had leftover whipped tofu around because no one was buying our burritos, which used it.) And then it dawned on me: Oh shit, this is mapo tofu, and it went on the menu. Without everybody’s parts in it, it never would have happened. —David Chang
- 1/2 C grapeseed or other neutral oil
- 3 large yellow onions, peeled, cut in half, and thinly sliced
- 2 + 1/2 t kosher salt
- 1 lb ground pork (about 2 C)
- 1 + 1/2 oz dried red chilies (2 very loosely packed C)
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 2 T doubanjiang or ssämjang
- 1 T whole Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 T gochugaru
- 1 T sugar
- 1 T soy sauce
- 2 C sliced or coarsely chopped Chinese vegetables, such as Chinese broccoli, bok choy, or any other Asian cooking green
- 8 long cylindrical rice sticks, cut into 1" lengths
- 8 oz silken tofu, drained and whisked until creamy and fluid
- 1 C sliced scallions, greens and whites
- 1/2 C packaged Chinese fried shallots
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a wide skillet over medium-high heat. After a minute or two, when the oil is hot, add the onions and 1⁄2 teaspoon salt. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to take on color and begin to shrink in the pan, about 10 minutes. Then turn the heat down to medium and, turning the onions over on themselves every 5 or so minutes, cook them until golden and soft and sweet, about 30 minutes in total.
Meanwhile, put a large pot of water on to boil and salt it well. Set another wide skillet over medium-high heat and slick with another tablespoon of oil. After a minute or two, when the oil is hot, add the ground pork to the pan and cook it, jabbing at the meat with the edge of the spoon to break it up, for about 10 minutes—just until it loses its raw pinkness, but not so long that it browns or threatens to dry out. Remove the pork from the pan, reserve it, and return the pan to the stove.
Add the remaining 5 tablespoons of oil to the pan you cooked the pork in, turn the heat to medium, and let the oil heat up for a minute. Add the dried chilies and warm them through until they’re fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the sliced garlic and cook it, stirring, for a minute to infuse its flavor into the oil—it doesn’t need to color, but when the aroma of garlic is rising from the pan, it’s ready. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the doubanjiang or ssämjang, Sichuan peppercorns, and gochugaru. Reserve off the heat until ready to use.
Add the cooked onions and pork to the pan, along with 1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water, and stir to combine. Stir in the sugar, soy, and remaining 2 teaspoons salt. At this point, you can cool and refrigerate (for a few days) or freeze the sauce (for a few weeks), if desired.
Bring the sauce to a simmer over medium heat and stir in the chopped greens. Cook them for 3–5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the stems are just tender.
Drop the rice cakes in the boiling water and cook them for 2–3 minutes, until warmed through. Drain the rice cakes and add them to the pan with the pork sauce, then stir in the whisked tofu. Divide the rice cakes and ragu between serving bowls, garnish each with scallions and fried shallots, and serve hot.