Mapo tofu is one of the first dishes my mother adapted to my vegetarian diet. Her recipe is saucy and lively, with the sharp bite of ja choy (pickled mustard plant stem) delivering a salty, spicy, fermented element.
I’ve adapted her recipe here, in a way that unexpectedly mimics the textures of the original porky dish, while subverting the role and intention of the ingredients. The eggplant becomes silky, replicating the delicate mouthfeel of silken tofu in the traditional dish, while the crumbled extra-firm tofu is robust and hearty, hugging the sauce in the way minced pork does.
I like to use Chinese eggplant for this dish – it’s less seedy and sweeter – but you could use regular eggplants here by cutting them into thick fingers. Dusting the eggplant in cornflour and searing it is a crucial step, adding flavour, ensuring that the eggplant stays intact, while also thickening up the sauce.
2 large Chinese eggplants (about 400g), cut diagonally into 1.25cm thick rounds
1 tbsp cornflour
Neutral-flavoured oil, for frying
4 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated in 375ml (1½ cups) boiling water (can substitute with fresh shiitake, oyster or Swiss brown mushrooms)
450g block of extra-firm tofu, roughly crumbled
1 tsp five-spice powder
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2.5cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 tbsp doubanjiang or black bean sauce
4 green onions (shallots), chopped into 5cm lengths
2 tsp soy sauce or tamari
1 tsp white sugar
Rice, to serve
Place the eggplant in a large bowl and scatter over the cornflour. Using your hands or a large spoon, toss to coat.
Heat a large Dutch oven or deep frying pan over medium–high heat. When it’s hot, drizzle with oil and arrange as many eggplant rounds as you can fit in a single layer. Sear for 3–4 minutes, until lightly golden, then flip them over and fry the other side; they don’t have to be completely cooked at this stage – we just want them to be lightly golden. Remove the eggplant from the pan and set aside.
Remove the shiitake mushrooms from the water, squeezing out any excess liquid. Keep the mushroom soaking water (if there is a lot of sediment in the water, run it through a fine-mesh sieve to remove). Finely slice the mushrooms.
To the same pan, add 2 tablespoons of oil, along with the tofu, mushroom, five-spice powder and about 1 teaspoon of sea salt.
Cook for 3–5 minutes, stirring every now and then, until the tofu starts to brown. Add the garlic and ginger, stir and cook for 1 minute.
Add the doubanjiang (or black bean sauce), green onion and soy sauce (or tamari) and sauté for 2 minutes until aromatic. Add the eggplant and mushroom soaking water (or substitute with water), then reduce the heat to medium, cover and simmer for 5 minutes, until the eggplant is completely softened. Add the sugar and stir, then taste and season with more sea salt, if needed. Serve with rice.
This is an edited extract from Tenderheart by Hetty Lui McKinnon, available now from Plum (RRP $59.99).