When it comes to cooking meals at home, absolutely no-one wants to cook a separate meal for the kids and a separate meal for adults. Yet adults often prefer bolder, spicier flavors with more exotic ingredients. Kids tend to enjoy simpler fare — carb heavy dishes with much milder flavors. At least my kids do — pizza, spaghetti, macaroni & cheese, sandwiches and so on.
It definitely puts smiles on their little faces, but I can only eat so much of it before I’m craving something more exciting that won’t break the budget. Something a little spicier…
Sichuan cuisine is known for being spicy, and isn’t known for being particularly kid friendly — with oily, spicy recipes that tend to numb the mouth!
At first blush you wouldn’t think a Sichuan dish like Mapo Tofu would be a family-friendly recipe… but with the right recipe it really can be.
The Japanese variant of the dish, is called ‘Mabo Tofu’. (Note: Mabo with a ‘b’, not a ‘p’ as in the Chinese version) This regional recipe adjusts the dish in a way that’s much less oily and spicy than it’s Sichuan origins would indicate. My kids love it! Despite being ‘toned down’, the Japanese inclusion of miso, oyster sauce, and chinese tenmenjan make the dish sweeter, but loaded with umami.
Readers of this blog have long been asking for my recipe after seeing pictures in my Dividend Income and Expense reports… well folks, today is the day! 🙂
We’re finally going to make Japanese Mabo Tofu!
I’ve said it before — Every great recipe starts with the sauce. Sure, you can buy sauce packets to save yourself time, but they won’t taste nearly as good as making the sauce by yourself. As you would expect, the secret to delicious home-made Mabo Tofu, is making the sauce yourself!
First, let’s cover the list of ingredients that make-up the sauce…
Mabo Tofu Sauce Ingredients:
- 2 tablespoon of sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce
- 1/2 cup of cooking sake (or rice wine)
- 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons of miso paste
- 2 tablespoons of toban djan (Use only 1 tablespoon for a less spicy version)
- 2 tablespoons of tenmenjan/tianmianjiang (Also known as ‘sweet bean paste’, or ‘sweet flower sauce’)
- 1 tablespoon of potato starch (or corn starch)
- 1 tablespoon of sugar
You’ll want to mix all the ingredients together using a container that can hold a couple cups worth of liquid. I use a Pyrex glass bowl and typically begin by adding the sesame oil.
Many of the ingredients used in this sauce are very common — like sugar, soy sauce and potato starch. You should have no problem acquiring those. Most people probably have them in the kitchen already.
A few of the sauce ingredients however, are slightly unusual. Oyster sauce is the first. It’s frequently used in Asian cuisines, and can be found at your local asian grocery store.
Any brand of oyster sauce will work — I’m using Shirakiku brand here. I’ve also used Dragonfly brand, and Kikoman brand in the past, both of which are perfectly fine and widely available both online and in stores.
The next usual ingredient is miso paste. If you’ve ever made miso soup at home, you’ve probably encountered tubs of miso paste like this one.
I don’t have any particular favorite brand of miso. There’s tons of different brands available. Most are pretty good. Add a healthy 2 tablespoons worth into your sauce bowl, and you’re good to go.
Next comes one of the more unusual ingredients – tenmenjan. It’s a Chinese sauce also known as “sweet been paste” or “sweet flower sauce”. There are *many* different spellings and names for it. Again, your local asian store should carry some variety of it. Or, you can find it online.
It looks like tar, but tenmenjan imparts a delicious salty-sweet flavor. Add two tablespoons to the sauce mixture.
And finally, the last really unusual ingredient is toban djan. Again, this ingredient goes by a number of different names and spellings, but you’ll commonly find it called “chili bean sauce”. I used Lee Kum Kee brand here. It’s not my favorite brand, but it was on-sale last time I needed to stock up at the grocery store.
Toban djan is where the spiciness for the dish comes from — add as much as your family can handle. It’s spicy stuff! I typically add about 2 tablespoons worth, but I’ve noticed that different brand’s spiciness level can vary considerably. Experiment to find out how much you like.
Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl, including the cooking sake, soy sauce, sugar, and potato starch. If you don’t have potato starch around, feel free to substitute with cornstarch. I usually dissolve the starch with a few tablespoons of water first, before adding it to the mabo tofu sauce.
When cooked later, the potato starch will thicken-up the mabo tofu sauce and give it a creamy texture.
Finally, mix all sauce ingredients in the bowl together until evenly blended. It should have a golden brown color, something like this:
Cooking Mabo Tofu
If you’ve reached this point your sauce should be prepared and at the ready. It’s now time for the main event!
First, we’ll need to gather and prepare a few ingredients…
Main Mabo Tofu Ingredients:
- 1 large yellow onion
- 2 bundles of green onions / scallions (about 8 total)
- 1 lb of ground pork
- 28 oz of soft tofu (two standard size tofu packages)
- 2 tablespoons of minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons of minced ginger
There’s nothing terribly unusual about any of the remaining ingredients — it’s all standard stuff. Begin by chopping the large yellow onion into small 1″ slices.
Next, slice the green onions into small slices. The white parts will be used in the main dish, and the greener ends will be used as a garnish later.
Heat a large wok with 1 tablespoon of sesame oil. I usually turn my stove up to ‘high’ and just leave it there. Then add 2 tablespoons each of both minced garlic and minced ginger. You can either buy these in pre-minced tubes, or make your own like I do.
Saute the garlic and ginger, but don’t let it burn. Then add the yellow onion and half of the green onions. I add the white half of the green onions to the wok, and reserve the remaining half for garnish.
Cook until most of the liquid is gone from the pan. The onions should just be starting to caramelize.
At this point, it’s time to add the ground pork and start cooking it. Again, maintaining a HIGH heat is important here.
In my opinion, one of the keys to really great mabo tofu is breaking-up that ground pork into really fine pieces when cooking …. so go to town on it with a spoon or spatula. The smaller the better IMHO. You don’t want large chunks.
Eventually the pork will begin to look something like this…
Cook off most of the remaining liquid, but don’t let anything burn. Remember to keep turning the wok contents to keep it from burning.
Now, it’s time to add the sauce. Pour it on, and stir it into the pork and onions. At this point, I also reduce the heat to Medium-High.
The final ingredient is the tofu. Use Soft tofu, but not Silken tofu. Silken is just too darn soft. It’ll fall apart. Every brand is different, but you need a tofu that can stand up to a little stirring and won’t fall apart too much. Soft tofu usually fits the bill. This is what I use:
Drain off the water, and cut the tofu blocks using a knife into 18 rectangular chunks — Two rows of 3 by 3 rectangles. 9 on the top row, 9 on the bottom. It looks like this…
At this point, you can unceremoniously dump the tofu into the sauce/pork mixture and begin mixing. The key here isn’t really to cook the tofu, but mostly to blend and warm it up.
Gently mix the two together with a spoon. You can now turn-off the heat and let it cool for a few minutes before serving. Feel free to break-up the tofu a little if the pieces are too large.
And you’re done! Serve the dish over rice, and garnish with a few of the remaining green onion slices. If the adults in your home need an additional ‘spicy kick’ go ahead and separate a portion for adding additional chili-bean sauce (tobanjan), or ground Sichuan peppercorns.
And that’s how I make Japanese-style Mabo tofu! I first learned the dish from a relative that lives in Japan, but every family has their own recipe variations. Feel free to adjust the recipe to suit your own family’s tastes.
It’s also worth noting this recipe makes quite a bit of food — enough to serve 6-8 adults. For my family of four, we have plenty of leftovers. Enough to make lunches, or to put in the freezer for “easy-dinner nights”. Like most Chinese food, it reheats really well.
Cooking time is approximately 45 minutes. That might sound like a lot, but it’s really super simple to make. For a family-pleasing dish, this couldn’t be easier!
Hope you enjoy it!
(Note: If you’d like to see more of my recipes, go here)