Ma Po Tofu

One of my favorite Chinese ingredients is fermented black beans, and I’ve been wanting to post a recipe showcasing them for a while now. Ma po tofu isn’t quite the recipe I had planned for that post because although you can taste the black beans, it’s harder to distinguish them from the other flavors. But I got it in my head I wanted to make ma po tofu – I think because Mark Bittman featured it earlier this week – so that’s what I made tonight. I’ll be getting back to you on a more fermented black bean-intensive dish soon, but in the meantime, here is a tasty and quick dish you can make. Fermented black beans are available in Chinese grocery stores. If you absolutely can’t find them, you can omit them, but they are well worth seeking out for their unique and delicious flavor.

Bulgur stands in for the traditional pork or slightly-less-traditional ground beef here. You can use a commercial vegan “ground beef” if you’d like, but bulgur is very quick and easy to whip up, much cheaper, and healthier.

As for the tofu, you can use any water-packed variety you want, from soft to firm, but you don’t want to use silken tofu (the kind that comes in aseptic packs), which I don’t think is really used much in Chinese cuisine. Many ma po tofu recipes call for soft tofu, but you don’t want to use tofu so soft it falls apart when you gently stir it. I made my own tofu, as I always do, but I used calcium sulfate as the coagulant instead of my usual nigari, because calcium sulfate makes a softer tofu (my usual tofu is very firm). It only took about 45 minutes to make the tofu from start to finish and the taste is so very worth it that I encourage you to consider trying it out, but of course you can use store-bought if it’s out of the question.

Ma Po Tofu

Excuse my fake tofu. I was in the midst of making the tofu when I took the ingredients photo.

3/4 cup bulgur
2 cups vegan “beef” stock, divided
1 Tbsp tomato paste
12 oz tofu, cut into cubes about 3/4″
5 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2″ piece ginger, minced or grated
1 Tbsp fermented black beans
1/4 cup shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
2 Tbsp bean paste (you can use 3 Tbsp chili bean paste instead of this and the following ingredient; I didn’t have any on hand)
1 Tbsp chili garlic paste
1 tsp Sichuan peppers, toasted and ground
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp cornstarch
3 Tbsp cold water

To make the “beefy” bulgur, place 1 1/2 cups of the broth, the tomato paste, and the bulgur in a small pot and bring to a boil.

Cover and lower the heat to medium low. Cook for about 15-20 minutes or until broth is completely incorporated. Set aside.

While the bulgur is cooking, prep the rest of the ingredients. When stir-frying or making other very quick-cooking dishes, you always want to have everything prepared and waiting for you before you begin heating the wok because it goes very quickly once you do. I love using my little restaurantware Chinese tea cups – which my mom got for me and which I love – for prepping (as well as for tea) because they are just the right size. Place the shaoxing wine or sherry and fermented black beans in one small dish; mix the bean paste and chili paste in another. In yet another, combine the remaining stock and the soy sauce. In still another, mix together the cornstarch and cold water. Measure out the Sichuan pepper, mince or press the garlic, and mince or grate the ginger.

Chop the tofu.

When the bulgur is ready, heat a wok over medium high heat. When it is sizzling hot, add a small amount of peanut oil, then add the garlic and ginger, stir-frying for 30 seconds.

Add the bulgur and stir fry for about 3 minutes, or until it’s a bit dried out.

Push the bulgur out of the way, up the side of the wok, and add the shaoxing wine and fermented black beans to the center of the wok. Stir fry for 30 seconds.

Add the bean and chili pastes and stir fry for another 30 seconds.

Push the bulgur back down into the center of the wok and mix everything up. Fry for 2 minutes.

Add the tofu and toss gently with the wok ingredients, trying not to break it up too much.

Pour in the remaining broth and the soy sauce and stir. Bring to a boil, then add the cornstarch mixture.

Mix everything together until the cornstarch mixture thickens the sauce and coats everything with a slighty shiny glaze.

If I’d had had scallions on hand, I’d have topped with scallions, but I didn’t so I topped with cilantro for that slightly green touch.

Serve with rice.

Next, explain to me what Tigger is doing here:

In other news, another thing my mother likes buying for me is vintage mustard pots, and I don’t deter her from this habit. Then I feel the need to fill the mustard pots with mustard! I’ve been wanting to do a post on homemade mustard for a while, but when I saw Jes’s post on the balsamic mustard from the Perfect Pantry on Cupcake Punk a couple of weeks ago, I had to make it. So although I’ll get to an original mustard recipe at some point in time, enjoy these photos of a really, really good mustard in the meantime.

Here it is in my newest mustard pot:

Closer up:

And on some Cheezly and crackers:

In just two weeks I’ll be in the San Francisco airport getting ready to board my flight to Sydney! If anyone has any suggestions for great things to do or great vegan food to eat while I’m there, please let me know!


  1. Jes Said,

    February 7, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    Beautiful mustard! And a mustard pot, what fun! I’ve been meaning to pick up some fermented beans at the store for awhile, and I’ve never thought of using bulghur as meat, so your recipe is really intriguing!

  2. Cindy Said,

    February 7, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    I love Ma Po Tofu. I think Tigger was saying “It smells like a Chinese restaurant in here. I’d better not move or I might become dinner!”

  3. Mom Said,

    February 8, 2009 @ 11:23 am

    Tigger looks like he is trying to be a sleepy kangaroo.

  4. jeremy Said,

    February 8, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

    Oh come on, you all know what it looks like Tigger’s doing.

    He’s trying to zap you with his brain.

  5. Melissa Said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    Hmm, your tofu looks much better than mine. My tofu has been misbehaving lately – it’s been very crumbly. What kind of soybeans do you use? And what coagulant did you use for this nice non-crumbly tofu?

  6. Jodye Said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

    All I can say is YUM! this looks absolutely delicious. Oh, and your cat is SO adorable!

  7. renae Said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    Melissa, I use Laura soy beans and for this particular batch of tofu I used calcium sulfate from GEM Cultures, but I usually use nigari. I haven’t had the crumbly problem. How much weight do you put on yours? For this batch, I used a large cast iron skillet as the weight (and usually I use the skillet plus a large, very heavy molcajete), so maybe the non-crumbliness is due to a pretty intensive pressing?

  8. Melissa Said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

    I’m using calcium sulfate too. Perhaps I’m not pressing it enough… I usually use my cast iron skillet only, so next time I think I’ll use the cast iron plus an amazingly heavy cookbook I have. Hopefully that’ll help.

  9. Queen Said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 12:18 am

    I made the Ma pa tofu tonight and it was great! I didn’t see when to add the pepper but I added it at the end and I think next time I might use less. The pictures of your ingredients at the beginning really helped me in shopping for items I never used before (the cooking wine and the beans in particular). Thanks!

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