One of my favorite aspects of traveling is getting to have totally new culinary experiences. I love trying new dishes, and experiencing new ingredients. The best thing about living and working in a foreign country is getting to eat dishes that you wouldn’t come across as just a tourist. The lunch provided at our Japanese schools is always filled with delicious “homestyle” dishes that you would never see in a restaurant. So far, I’ve experience some delightful things like chestnut rice (kuri gohan 栗ご飯) Japanese pumpkin topped with anko (sweet red bean paste) and okara, tofu pulp which sounds awful but is quite yummy and very healthy.
Andrew’s favorite new dish discovered through school lunch is Mapo Tofu, often written as Mapo Dofu, and pronounced like Mabo Dofu. I was very shocked to learn that Andrew favored this dish, as it consists of tofu (which he usually shuns) and has a gelatinous texture. One week when I wasn’t feeling well, I asked Andrew to do the grocery shopping and make something for dinner. He chose to make mapo tofu, which you can buy premixed at any grocery store in Japan. It was pretty tasty, but since I’m not a huge fan of prepackaged food, I figured we could make it from scratch next time.
Whenever I try a new dish and want to replicate it at home, I do what every home cook would do: turn to the internet for advice. Since moving to Japan, I have found a few wonderful cooking blogs that include authentic Japanese recipes, the real “homestyle” items I mentioned earlier. Here are the sites I have come to rely on: Just One Cookbook, Savory Japan, No Recipes.
The recipe I use is the Japanese-style mapo tofu from Marc Matsumoto on the No Recipes blog, here. It is really simple, quick and filling. You won’t need to prepare anything else for dinner besides the rice. Mapo tofu originated in China, and was quite spicy, so obviously the Japanese rendition is totally bland. I like a little more heat, so I tweak the recipe slightly, as well as add some mushrooms and yellow onion for extra substance.
What you’ll need:
1/3 cup mirin: the original recipe calls for 1/3 cup sake, but since I can never manage to keep drinking sake in the house long enough, I substitute this sweet cooking rice wine
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp red miso
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 1/2 tbsp tobanjan (a spicy miso bean paste, also written Doubanjiang): I also add a hefty spoonful of garlic chili paste. You can basically use whatever spice you like, sambal oelek, Sriracha, Korean gochujang paste, or real chili peppers of course. I can’t get any here in Japan. The original recipe calls for only a teaspoon of tobanjan. Just taste as you go and add more if needed
Chili garlic sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp cornstarch: the original recipe calls for less, but I find that it needs more to firm up the sauce
Mix all the above with a whisk or fork.
My rice cooker tells you “Oh” when it’s ready
thin sliced white or yellow onion, whole small
minced ginger: measure to your preference, I usually add over a tablespoon
minced garlic: since I like the spice, I do at least 2 cloves, add less or more to your preference
1/2 pound ground pork
350 grams of packaged firm tofu: the original recipe calls for silken, but I’ve always used the firm style (called momen もめん) since I keep it in the house for miso soup. It’s denser and holds its shape. If you want more delicate tofu, go with silken. Drain it with a paper towel and cut into cubes
Let your white rice cook while you make the mapo tofu. You can make the sauce ahead of time and store in the refrigerator. I start with one cup of dry rice for two people, but usually have leftovers. This recipe can serve four if you pair it with some veggies.
In a larger frying pan or wok, heat a splash of sesame oil. Sauté the white onion slices until soft and translucent. Add the mushrooms and sauté until soft. Add the ginger and garlic, heat together for thirty seconds.
Add the ground pork and cook through. When no more pink remains, add your sauce and cook for a few minutes on high to thicken.
Lower the heat and add your tofu, heating thoroughly.
Stir in a handful of green onions and serve the mapo tofu on top of your cooked rice. I always put a bottle of garlic chili paste on the table, too, in case it needs more heat.
If there are any leftovers, save them along with some rice. In the morning, fry it all up together for a fantastic Chinese-style jambalaya. You could even top it with a fried egg.
For crispy rice, flatten the mixture across the frying pan and let it cook undisturbed for a few minutes. The rice will brown up quite nicely and add a nice contrast to the soft tofu.
I hope you enjoy this authentic non-restaurant dish, and be sure to check out my other recipes and the blogs above for more fabulous Japanese cuisine!
いただきます (itadakimasu – I humbly receive)