Mapo Tofu: Chili Of China

All this speculation about the chili creation story has me thinking about alternatives to your typical spiced ground beef and tomato stew. When the weather demands stick-to-your-ribs comfort food, I tend to break out kheema, Indian chili that (in my humble opinion) blows a bowl of red out the window. But if I'm feeling texturally adventurous, and I frequently am, it's mapo tofu or nothing.

That's right, just like China "generously loaned" noodles to Italy, the notion of stewed ground meat with spices originally hails from the far East. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a Chinese joint that doesn't have it on the menu. It may be under the name of "Szechuan bean curd with pork" or another variation, but it's there.

Now I'm not one to take translations literally, so I'm not going to tell you what "ma po" means. Fine, I'm so happy Wikipedia's back on that I'll share: "pockmarked old lady's face tofu." Take that as you will, plenty of American food's lore is on the bizarre side as well, but suffice it to say that this dish was invented by a cookin' granny with an abnormally high tolerance to capsaicin and a burning desire to scorch her loyal diners' mouths. It's been a beloved Chinese comfort food ever since.

So what is it? It's ground pork, browned with ginger, garlic, scallions and hot chilis. Spicy fermented black bean paste, soy sauce and cornstarch find their way in at some point, as does silken tofu (that's the softest kind) and the whole business is simmered together until the meat is tender and the tofu has absorbed as much tasty sauce as it possibly can. And if you're going to make the effort of learning how to make chili in the slow-cooker you won from Food Republic just in time for the Super Bowl, I recommend you go back to the dish's roots and channel some pockmarked old lady's face.

On second thought, maybe a day away from Wikipedia did me some good.