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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What makes a ma-po?

For the last 30 years, Houston has been host to a Caesar Salad Competition, where different restaurants send their chefs to do celebrated riffs on the ubiquitous salad. The end result can look nothing like a salad - notable reinterpretations included cupcakes and jello shots. But the key there is to capture the essence of the "classic" dish - from lettuce to anchovies - and rearrange the ingredients in another imaginative way which hewing to the original.

This is by no means unique to Caesar salad - various deconstructions are still trendy in upscale restaurants to use highly sophisticated techniques to (often) recreate a familiar flavor and texture combination. One dish that I think deserves some celebration and reinterpretation is ma-po tofu. Loosely translated as "pockmarked old woman's bean curd", it's the unofficial poster child of Sichuan cooking - a contrast of intense flavors and cooling soft tofu. The commonality seems to be a thickened umami rich sauce base (often with fermented bean paste and bit of meat - yes, this tofu dish is not usually vegetarian), ample amounts of spice and ma - that numbing sensation from the headlining Sichuan peppercorns, mixed in with a bland contrasting item. Usually, that's silken tofu, but versions can be made from poached white fish.

So, how imaginative can you get with ma-po? Different sources of umami? Nuts? Ma-po turkey breast may be the right thing for next Thanksgiving. Or the sauce items can be embedded in tofu to be cooked and served like xiaolongbao.

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