Mapo Tofu, that aromatic dish of braised tofu with minced pork in a deeply savory sauce, is a wildly popular menu item in many Chinese restaurants. I gladly order it whenever possible. Just a spoonful or two with steamed rice makes a pleasant beginning to a multicourse meal.
At home, though, Mapo Tofu can be a light meal on its own. If you need dinner in a hurry, you'll find it makes a rapid transition from wok to table. Though the dish is complex in flavor, the preparation is surprisingly simple. And even a novice cook can pull it off. It may take a trip to an Asian grocery to obtain the few required ingredients, but some supermarkets can provide them, too.
Fermented black beans are necessary, but just a tablespoon. The spicy red fermented broad bean paste from Sichuan Province called doubanjiang is the other key ingredient. Spring for Sichuan peppercorns, too; their tingly bite complements the hot red pepper and provides roundness.
The question is, can Mapo Tofu be made without meat and still satisfy on every level? Answer: absolutely, positively, yes. This meatless version with fresh shiitake mushrooms is completely satisfying. The chopped shiitake caps stand in nicely. When you taste the finished rust-colored sauce, with ginger, garlic, sesame oil and scallions added to the kicky base, you'll agree.
Much depends upon the tofu itself. Look for the freshest. Buy soft rather than firm tofu for this dish (silken tofu is a bit too delicate). To enhance texture and flavor, give the cubed tofu a brief bath in boiling hot salted water before cooking.
At the end, when you add the tofu, take care to cook it gently to keep it from crumbling. Shake the pan to help it settle into the sauce, and give it a nudge with a wooden spoon.
Mapo Tofu takes less time to cook than rice, so start the rice first. This is one 30-minute meal that won't have you feeling harried and breathless by the time it's ready. It's incentive to go meatless any day of the week.