Famed Chinese chef Yu Bo’s mapo tofu takes the spicy, hearty and pleasingly numbing dish and kicks it into a higher gear. The addition of avocado, a California twist, is — and I don’t always love this term — fusion cuisine at its finest. In this case, the phrase is apt. It quite literally melds two traditions to create something different, elevated and surprising. We would be fortunate if all food that called itself “fusion” could do the same.
Add the dark soy sauce and 1 teaspoon of ground Sichuan peppercorn to the meat. Mix and let sit in the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes. (For the peppercorns, you’re probably buying them whole. The bag might say “prickly ash” instead of “Sichuan peppercorns” -- that’s fine. Grind them up.)
Add 3 tablespoons of water to a 6-inch frying pan. Do not add oil. Cook meat with the white parts of the green onions over medium heat. Cook the meat down and break it into tiny bits as it cooks. After the water is gone, continue to cook the meat and break it into smaller bits. Do this for a little longer than feels right. You want to be left with tiny meat nubs. Remove the onions.
Fill a large bowl with water and a pinch of salt. Slice tofu into approximately 3/4-inch cubes and let soak in the salt-water solution for 5 minutes. About a minute before you’re ready to add the tofu to the wok, transfer the tofu to a hot water bath.
Heat the oil in a large wok over low heat, coating the surface thoroughly. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic. Add the ginger, red pepper powder, soybeans and doubanjiang and cook for 2 minutes. Add the chicken stock and increase heat slightly to bring to a low boil, then reduce heat again.
Add beef and cook for 2 minutes. (Transfer your tofu to a hot water bath at this point.) Carefully add the tofu (the hot water will have softened it) and simmer for a couple more minutes.
Add the sweet soy sauce, black pepper and sugar. Simmer another 5 minutes or so, stirring carefully every so often. The tofu is delicate, so it’s best to use a spatula or something with flexible edges so as not to break up the chunks.
Loosen up the cornstarch slurry (which will have settled) and add a 1/3 of it to the wok, pouring into the liquid (not on top of the tofu), and stir. Add the avocado and cook for 2 minutes, then add another 1/3 of the slurry. Cook 2 more minutes, stirring every now and again, before adding the rest of the slurry. Yu emphasizes meting out the slurry slowly, as opposed to dumping it all in at once.
Simmer for 5 minutes, then add the remaining ground Sichuan peppercorn (you can add more or less here, depending on your taste and the quality of your peppercorns) and mix carefully. Simmer for 2 minutes and remove from heat. Yu judges whether the tofu is fully cooked by whether the sharp edges of the tofu cubes have softened, or “collapsed,” as he puts it. Serve with rice.
Sichuan peppercorns, dark soy sauce, fermented black soybeans, doubanjiang and thick soy sauce can be purchased at Asian markets.
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