Brett and I went to Mission Chinese on East Broadway in New York City last January, just after it opened. I suspect they have worked out the kinks since then because people seem to love it, but we had a terrible meal that night.
I had heard their mapo tofu was not to be missed. Even after a ropy lamb shank and weird coconut cocktail that was on its way to becoming pudding, the tofu was the biggest let down. Brett was skeptical on pressed soy to begin with—and still is. But I had the misplaced confidence that with enough pork and beef fat we could change all that.
Ours came so salty that it was barely edible and laced with enough Sichuan pepper that to this day it still elicits numb tongue jokes. For two people who will eat pretty much anything you put in front of them, the mapo went unfinished.
After that, I was inspired to make the dish myself. Though it took some months to revisit. It was enough time for Lucky Peach to publish a few recipes on mapo—including the Mission Chinese version with a suspiciously miniscule amount of Sichuan pepper.
I suspect their recipe is actually quite good and the kitchen was likely still finding its groove that night. But I settled on another recipe from Han Dynasty in Philly, which ended up being incredibly delicious.
It has been adapted and tailored a great deal since then, mostly due to my low energy search for doubanjiang. And my contempt for chili oil made using cheap soybeans. And my habit of keeping chicken stock frozen, so it cannot lend itself to impulse or whim. And our coupled indifference towards tofu, which I am ashamed to admit as a healthcare professional, was phased out altogether.
Turns out, the dish is quite good solely with beef—I often use ground veal because I can get a quasi-local source—or pork. I may try adding back some soy in the form of edamame. But in the meantime, the recipe remains heretically tofu free.
It still feels like a fairly wholesome dish—and a fairly fast one to recreate, perfect for a Friday night supper. The healthy dose of aromatics in the form of ginger, garlic, and leek is crucial, as is the Sichuan pepper. But the amount of oil originally called for in the recipe is not. I jettisoned a half cup so we could eat it more regularly as a lighter meal.
I doubt the cooks at Han Dynasty would recognize the recipe. But to quote Lucky Peach, “the mapo tofu galaxy is one of infinite possibilities, spiraling outward from an originally spicy, oily, numbing, meaty sauce/stew of Sichuan origin.”
This is one meaty mission I can get behind, with just the right level of numb tongue.
Inspired by Han Dynasty courtesy of Lucky Peach #15: The Plant Kingdom
- 3 to 4 large cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tbsp minced fresh peeled ginger
- 1 leek, white and light green parts well cleaned, split lengthwise, and thinly sliced
- 1½ to 2 cups uncooked white rice (see notes)
- ¼ cup canola oil
- 2 tbsp chili garlic sauce (such as Huy Fong)
- 2 tbsp hoisin sauce
- ½ pound ground veal (or regular beef or pork or lamb)
- 1 tbsp fermented black bean paste
- 1 tbsp gochujang (Korean chili sauce)
- 3 tbsp cornstarch
- 1 tbsp ground Sichuan pepper
- Optional garnish: chopped cilantro
Make sure your garlic, ginger, and leeks are prepped and ready to go.
In a medium saucepan, add the rice and 1½ times the quantity of rice of water. (For instance, add 3 cups of water to 2 cups of rice.) Stir and bring to a boil uncovered, then reduce the heat to low and cover. Cook for about 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed and the rice is fully cooked. (Turn off the burner and keep the lid on for 5 to 10 minutes after the rice has finished cooking—the rice can sit longer, if necessary, while the sauce comes together.)
While the rice is cooking, heat a large saucepan on medium high heat, add the oil and the garlic and ginger; sauté until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in the chili sauce and then the hoisin.
Add in the ground meat, breaking it up with a spoon. Cook for about 30 to 60 seconds, stirring occasionally, and then add in the leeks and cook another 60 seconds or so. Stir in the black bean paste and gochujang. Add in 2 cups of water and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
In a small bowl, make a cornstarch slurry with 3 tablespoons of cold water. Add in the slurry and let the mixture simmer about 5 minutes, or until it thickens slightly. (It should look like a thick chili.)
Stir in the Sichuan pepper. Serve on top of rice with cilantro, if desired.
Makes enough for 4 to 5 humans
- I typically prefer basmati rice and this case is no exception. The rice to water ratio may vary slightly depending on the type of rice you use. (I left a range for the rice, the resultant portion should be just enough for the sauce.)
- This would also be great with noodles instead of rice.