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Mapo Doufu is one of my favorite Chinese dishes which also happens to be widely popular in Japan (although the Japanese version varies significantly from the Chinese original). So, with all the variations going on, I’d like to offer  my own take on this classic Chinese dish. While my version uses Japanese ingredients, it is pretty different from the Mapo Doufu you’d find in Japan, or China for that matter. For starters, there is no pork, an ingredient I substitute with shiitake mushrooms. As a person who eats a mostly plant-based diet, I’m adamant about finding deeply satisfying yet non-animal based flavors. The miso and shiitake mushrooms used in this dish definitely deliver on that score.

Instead of using Chinese black bean paste, I use a combination of red and dark Japanese miso. I also spice my mapo doufu with Chinese 5 spice powder (a mixture of star anise, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, cloves and fennel seeds).  Basically, what you’re making is a rich, spicy, smokey tofu-and-sauce dish which makes a complete meal topped over rice which I often mix with chopped carrots and spinach.  Once you get the ingredients down, this dish can be made in 10 minutes (seriously!). Oh, and by the way, I’m not going to share an image of the finished dish because it really inspire you to try making it—but the taste is phenomenal.

Recipe: Mapo Doufu

1 big green onion (in Japan this is called naga-negi, sometimes translated as “Welsh onion”) we’re talking about green onion that is around 2 feet long and at least as thick as your thumb. Quarter the whole thing and chop it up. A large leek will do if you can’t find the Japanese kind.

2 cloves of garlic, minced

3 rehydrated dried whole shiitake mushrooms (keep the water, about 2 cups)

4 tablespoons of miso paste (the darker the better: red miso, dark miso, mugi miso… I use two tablespoons red, two dark).

half a tablespoon Chinese 5 spice powder

at least a teaspoon of chili paste (I use a SPICY Japanese chili paste made from Japanese togarashi peppers that are left in the snow over the winter to develop a deep spice with an almost lime-like aftertaste—but you can use anything with a kick!)

half a tablespoon brown rice vinegar (of course, it doesn’t have to be brown, but it’s healthier and gives a fuller flavor)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 block of soft, silken tofu (carefully drained and patted dry with a paper towel) cut into half-inch blocks. the silken tofu is key to this dish, and the fresher the better!

*a dash of toasted sesame oil and maybe soy sauce for flavor

Before I turn on the pan I prep everything. So, onions chopped and set aside. Garlic minced and set aside. Mushrooms removed from the water, patted with towel and minced and set aside. In a small mixing bowl combine the miso paste, chinese 5 spice, chili paste, half of the minced garlic, brown rice vinegar and as much of the mushroom water as you need to make a nice liquidy sauce (about 2/3 of a cup)—keep the rest of the water handy. This is where I add a dash of toasted sesame oil if I’m going for a really rich flavor.

Turn on the stove to a medium-high heat and heat your skillet. Pour in the oil and when it’s hot add all the onion. When the onions are starting to curl up and give off a nice smell, add the minced shiitake mushrooms and the other half of your minced garlic. When the garlic and mushrooms look almost toasty, add your miso mixture and stir it around with a wooden spoon so it doesn’t stick to the pan. By this point, the kitchen is smelling pretty good. Turn down the heat and quickly cut up your drained tofu—add this immediately to the simmering sauce. Gently move the tofu around in the sauce, it will break a little bit, but be careful not to destroy the tofu completely.
Add your remaining mushroom water (again, another 2/3 of a cup) and let your mixture simmer and bubble. If it’s too liquidy, let it go for longer to steam off some liquid. You can’t really mess this up, the key is to just let it simmer without disturbing the tofu too much. The whole process should take no longer than 10 minutes from turning on the pan to spooning the Mapo Doufu over rice.

For a complete meal, I sometimes steam my rice with chopped carrots and then I stir in fresh, chopped spinach into the hot rice as I’m putting it into serving bowls. Spoon the Mapo Doufu over the rice and dinner is served!

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