no go ma po to fu


“The grand thing about cooking is you can eat your mistakes.” — Julia Child

The other day, I had a craving for mapo tofu. I wanted an easy to make dinner, which would not dirty too many dishes. Hey! I like a bit of spice in my life! As it happened, it was a simple thing that caught me unaware.

This recipe uses cornstarch as a thickening agent. Cornstarch is a flour made by grinding the endosperm of dried corn kernels, much the same way that wheat flour is made. In England cornstarch is actually called cornflour (That brought to mind the color, cornflower blue. Cornstarch is white, so where does blue come in. And now I remember, cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) are a beautiful blue! But they have nothing to do with corn…)Sauces thickened with cornstarch have a clear sheen. It is often used in Chinese restaurants so the food appears shiny. It makes fruit pie fillings translucent and pretty.
√ Cornstarch has twice the thickening power of wheat flour and it produces a clearer sauce.
√ An acidic liquid (juices, vinegars, wines), weakens its thickening power by about half.
√ It is best to mix it with water before incorporating it into a sauce, as it clumps easily.
√ If the sauce is overheated, or overstirred, it will begin to breakdown and lose thickening power. If you freeze a sauce thickened with cornstarch, it will become ‘spongy.’
The story is that Mr. Tess and I were squabbling having an interesting conversation about something, while I reached down to retrieve my box of cornstarch in a lower cabinet. I commented that I like to use potato starch in this recipe but cornstarch would be just fine. (My potato starch was around a corner, in the back of the cupboard with all the other ‘Japanese’ staples, so I wouldn’t be able to hear what he was saying without shouting.
…which we were not doing…)

I carefully measured one Tablespoon of stuff from the familiar yellow box, two Tablespoons of water, and mixed them together to suspend the cornstarch in the water. This is called a ‘slurry.’ Who wants a lumpy sauce, right?

Things were really heating up nicely (on the stove). Mr. Tess made the rice and the timer had ‘dinged.’ It was ready! We were HUNGRY!

I grabbed my trusty silicone spatula ready to stir like crazy,
and dumped my slurry into the simmering broth…

Instantly, I saw my sauce fizz up like a shaken can of soda. Wooosh.
looking on the bright side: one could say it looked like shaken champaign

NOTE: it is not possible to wash a wok-ful of food which includes ground pork…

Mabo Tofu
a Chinese dish adapted to Japanese tastes

japanesemapotofu_8484from several sites online
serves 4

  • 1 block soft cotton tofu, about 12 ounces
  • ½ lb ground pork


  • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
  • ½ negi or 4 or 5 green onions
  • white part only, finely chopped, reserve the green part for garnish
  • 1 Tbsp tobanjian



  • 1 cup water
  • 2 Tablespoons sake
  • 3 Tablespoons miso
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon katakuriko/corn starch
    mixed with 2 Tablespoons water

For Serving:

  • 1 teaspoon sansho powder
  • ½ Tablespoon Japanese sesame oil
  • green onions, green part only, cut into rings
  • 4 cups steamed rice

Wrap tofu in a towel, add some weight (plate with a can of tomatoes or whatever), and let the tofu drain for about 30 minutes. Cut tofu into ½-inch cubes. Set aside. Some recipes call for boiling the tofu, or for stir-frying the cubes with sesame oil, but the tofu will cook in the sauce so it is not necessary.

In a two cup measuring cup, combine water, sake, miso, and sugar. Stir until the sugar and miso dissolves. Set aside.

Heat oil in a wok on low heat, add garlic, ginger, and onion. Stir fry for a few minutes. Add the tobanjian, give it a stir, then add the ground pork. Break up the chunks of meat until the color changes. Pour the sauce mixture into the wok and bring it up to a simmer. Add tofu cubes, and simmer for about 10 minutes. Mix the cornstarch with the water and stir it into the wok. Stir gently, so as not to break the tofu cubes, until the sauce is thickened and glossy.

Serve in bowls on top of Japanese rice. Sprinkle a little shansho powder and sesame oil on each bow. Garnish with the onions.


6 thoughts on “no go ma po to fu

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention no go ma po to fu « Tess's Japanese Kitchen --

  2. Hey Tess,
    So you had to chuck it and start over? I absolutely adore Mabo Tofu; I can’t wait to try your recipe!
    On a similar vain, my Dad and I used to cook a lot of Indian food together, sort of a Father-Daughter thing. Well, one night, we had the classical music blasting, and a couple of glasses of wine under our belts, as we cooked up a killer great curry! We used to buy all our spices in bulk at a local Indian market, then we’d get home and transfer them from the cellophane bags to glass jars and label them. This recipe called for cayenne pepper, so I grabbed a jar, and thinking that it might be either chili powder or paprika, I took a big whiff. That was truly one massive mistake! It was indeed the cayenne. After he got done laughing, from our phone call. our Doctor said Aloe Vera mixed with ice water. snort that instead. Whew!

    • Tossed it. I don’t think anyone could wash that terrible taste off of ground pork!
      So J. made eggs for himself, and me, I gave up and went to bed.

      Ooouch! It would have been bad enough had it been only paprika.

      I’ve breathed in freshly ground black pepper and that’s not fun.

      Oh, and what about cutting up peppers that you don’t realize are hot, and you don’t realize you touched your eyes… We keep a bottle of ‘eye wash’ and a little ‘eye-cup’ because I do that sometimes~brushing hair away from eyes when I finish chopping…

      The recipe is one I published last fall, but I just really wanted to have some again…

  3. This is a wonderful dish- I’ve had the Chinese version too, but I like this much better.
    It can be made vegetarian by replacing the ground pork with soaked dried shiitake mushrooms.

    • Hello Betty Weiss,

      I do like this recipe. I used to really enjoy very spicy food and could eat the hottest Korean and Thai foods without problems. But after all this time cooking so much (milder and gentler) Japanese food I can admit that a nice spicy dish that doesn’t involve machismo can be very enjoyable. I have not had the Chinese version but I imagine it is spicier than this recipe?

      Yes! The meat in this is more of a texture than flavor, so minced re-hydrated (or even fresh) shiitake would be nice. Or you could use seiten or various of firmer tofu products.

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