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How to Make Mapo Tofu, a Spice Bomb Served as a Meal

Danny Bowien’s take on Mapo Tofu exemplifies what makes Mission Chinese the go-to spot in SF and NYC.

In recent years, the trend in cookbook writing is to tell a restaurant’s story alongside the recipes that epitomize the cooking. The story of a place’s growth is, naturally, intricately linked to the team behind it (kitchen and managerial staff) and the vision and leadership of the head chef. The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook ($21), penned by head chef Danny Bowien and writer Chris Ying, takes this concept of biography/cookbook to the extreme, which fits well with Mission Chinese’s iconoclastic ethos.

The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook is a personal look into Bowien’s life. Set up as a conversation between Bowien and Ying, with interjections by Mission Chinese cofounder Anthony Myint, no aspect of Bowien’s life is overlooked — from his early years in Oklahoma as an adopted child, to problems in his twenties with drinking and drugs, to soured professional relationships in various kitchens. After co-founding Mission Chinese, Bowien’s career took off, and as he grew professionally, his restaurant exploded in popularity. Mouth-numbing Chongqing chicken wings and smoky thrice-cooked bacon exemplify Bowien’s San Francisco years, while the lighter Machta Noodle and luxurious Beggar’s Duck typify Mission Chinese’s transition in New York (and as such, certain recipes developed in New York are told by Executive Chef Angela Dimayuga).

The recipes in this cookbook aren’t watered-down versions for the home chef, and thus, inception-like recipes within recipes are quite frequent. If the goal is to recreate Mission Chinese food with its layers upon layers of flavor at home, the reader must take time to assemble and build the proper pantry, and mind the fact that they’ll need a ripping-hot wok.

As for the recipe below, it is Bowien’s take on Mapo tofu, which hooked me on his cooking when I first visited Mission Chinese at its dimly lit San Francisco location. The dish is an umami-heavy whirlwind of mouth-numbing spice, rich pork and fermented seasonings. The recipe is similar, preparation-wise, to that of a ragù and has flavors that will excite your imagination and induce cravings of this new “American cuisine.”

tofu recipe

Mission Chinese’s Mapo Tofu

Serves 4 (or 6 as a part of a larger meal)

2 ounces dried whole shiitake mushrooms
3 cups very hot water
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup doubanjiang (spicy bean paste)
1/3 cup tomato paste

1/2 cup chili oil, or as needed
15 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup fermented black beans
1/3 cup Chili Crisp
1 (12-ounce) bottle cheap beer
2 teaspoons mushroom powder
1 teaspoon toasted and ground
Sichuan peppercorns
1 (15-ounce) package firm tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 teaspoon cornstarch slurry
Soy sauce

Sichuan peppercorn oil, for drizzling
Ground Sichuan pepper
Several sprigs fresh cilantro, chopped
1 or 2 scallions, trimmed and sliced
Steamed rice

1. Prepare the base. In a medium bowl, combine the shiitake mushrooms and hot water. Add the soy sauce and allow the mushrooms to soak for at least an hour, or until they are completely rehydrated and soft.

2. Drain the mushrooms through a sieve set over a bowl and reserve the liquid. In a food processor, pulse the mushrooms into small chunks. You should have about 1 cup of chopped mushrooms.

3. Combine the reserved mushroom liquid, doubanjiang, and tomato paste in a medium bowl. Whisk to combine, then add the chopped mushrooms. You will have about 3½ cups of the base—reserve 1¾ cups for this recipe and transfer the rest to an airtight container and refrigerate for later.

4. Prepare the braise. In a Dutch oven or large saucepan, heat the chili oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, fermented black beans and Chili Crisp and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic softens and the mixture becomes spine-tinglingly aromatic.

5. Add the beer, mushroom powder, Sichuan pepper and reserved 1¾ cups base to the pan and stir to combine. Bring the sauce to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and simmer gently, uncovered, for about an hour. (At this point, you can cool and then refrigerate or freeze the sauce for up to 2 months.)

6. Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil. Blanch the tofu cubes for 1 minute, then drain carefully and set aside.

7. If you want a thicker sauce, stir in the cornstarch slurry. Once the sauce thickens, fold in the tofu. Taste and season with soy sauce as needed.

8. There should be a thin puddle of shiny red oil on top of the sauce — if not, add a few more tablespoons of chili oil. Finish with a drizzle of Sichuan peppercorn oil, a sprinkling of ground Sichuan pepper and a scattering of cilantro and scallions. Serve with steamed rice.

* * *

Meat Variation

1/2 pound ground pork or a mix of ground pork and diced pork shoulder/belly
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
1 bottle of beer

1. Make the vegetarian mapo tofu through step 4. Once the garlic softens and spine tingles occur, scoop out the aromatics as best you can and set them aside.

2. Crank the heat up to high and get the chili oil almost smoking hot. Add the pork to the pan and brown it thoroughly, using a spoon to break up the meat. When you’ve got good color on the meat and you’re teetering on burning things, crash the party with the bottle of beer. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up all the crispy bits from the bottom of the pan and stir them into the liquid. Add the aromatics back to the pan, along with the fish sauce, mushroom powder, Sichuan pepper and 2 cups of the base and bring to a simmer. If the sauce looks thick, thin it with some more base or beer until it looks like a thin marinara sauce. Cover and braise over low heat for 2 hours. (At this point, you can cool and then refrigerate or freeze the sauce for up to 1 month.)

3. If you want a thicker sauce, stir in the cornstarch slurry. Once the sauce thickens, fold in the tofu and slowly warm it through. Taste and season with soy sauce as needed, then finish as you would in steps 6 through 8 of the vegetarian version.

From The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook by Danny Bowien and Chris Ying.

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