mabo dofu

Every time I make this dish I think that I should share the recipe. Every time I decide not to - mostly because it is not a beautiful dish. But we love it so much that I have decided to overlook whatever challenges it may face in appearance and hope that others will judge it on its inherent merit as well. Some families pull out a box of Kraft dinner, some order pizza, some pb&j sandwiches, some a bowl of cereal, others whip up a batch of spaghetti but the most often requested, quick and easy meal at our house is easily mabo dofu. It is the epitome of quick comfort food for our family and takes no more than 30 minutes from walking into the kitchen to sitting down at the table, what I often turn to when time is short or I haven't planned very well. (You can surely see why I finally decided to share, and if you smelled it there would be no doubt at all.)

I learned to make this when we lived in Osaka when the kids were little. Mabo dofu converted me to eating tofu - before M.D. I abhorred it, all quivery and bland. It really didn't matter to me that it was reputed to be healthy, if you can't get it down it can't do you much good after all. But cooked this way, getting it down wasn't a challenge. Not for me or anyone else. It is mildly spicy and very tasty. Originally a Chinese dish, this version of the recipe has been 'japan-ized' - something the Japanese excel at. My friend Shoko taught me to make this. We have never looked back, except with fond memories.

mabo dofu
from my friend Shoko

2 packages of medium firm tofu,  drained and diced in 1/2" cubes
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2" piece of fresh ginger, grated
1 lb lean ground beef

Brown the beef with the onion, garlic, and ginger in a large fry pan or wok.

Stir together:
2 Tbsp red miso
1 Tbsp sugar
4 Tbsp soya sauce
1 1/2 cup dashi*
1 Tbsp mirin
1-2 tsp tobanjan

2 Tbsp cornstarch
1 Tbsp sesame oil

Add the mixture to the browned beef mixture. Add the diced tofu and simmer for 10 minutes. Mix 2 Tbsp cornstarch with 2 Tbsp water and stir into the meat-tofu mixture to thicken it slightly. Drizzle with 1 Tbsp of sesame oil and stir in gently.

Serve over short grain (Japanese style) California rice. This may seem like an unimportant distinction but it isn't. And in no case use instant rice. Just don't! Really don't.

Important note: Stir this very gently after adding the tofu. This is truly important or you risk making a rather plain looking dish look like something your dog ate and then rejected - after eating. (Is that put delicately enough?)

Dashi, miso, and mirin may not be in your pantry but are worth seeking out - even if all you use them for is mabo dofu. And if you want to do any Japanese cooking at all you will use them regularly. You may find them in the Asian aisle in large supermarkets but more likely (and therefore more easily) in an Asian market. The dashi can be replaced with chicken broth but you really need the mirin and miso.

*Dashi is a fish broth. For this recipe I always use dashi granules mixed into water - kind of like chicken bouillon.

Update: Jonathon suggested that I add this update "so that people don't blow their brains out in the grocery store looking" for the dashi and tobanjan. Tobanjan is simply a chili bean paste - the Japanese version. If you can't find it (and it can be tricky) go with a Chinese version. It will make little-to-no difference in the end. 
The brand of dashi that I use is Ajinomoto. You will probably need to look for dashi in an Asian market. the label will say "Hon Dashi Bonito Fish Stock". It comes packaged as individual serving sachets in foil packets or in small jars, bulk-style. Same/same. If you don't know an Asian market or simply can't make it to one, use chicken broth. I have on occasion and it is fine.

Finally, this is really and simply so good, fast, and easy. Do give it a try. Guaranteed hit!


Jonathon said...

I'm afraid that the lack of comments on this post mean that people are either too intimidated by the recipe or don't understand how delicious it is.

Let it be known: THIS RECIPE IS THAT GOOD AND THAT EASY (well, when I have watched my mom make it it looks easy).

nita.armstrong@gmail.com said...

I'm trying this out tonight! just found the last ingredients. will report back :)

nita.armstrong@gmail.com said...

okay, we just had mabo dofu for the first time. SO YUMMY! my 6 year old james even told me that it was "make 50-times again-able"! thanks for sharing :)

Cheri said...

Ha! That's adorable!! Thanks for the feedback.

muggins said...

Based on your son's glowing recommendation I'd like to try this recipe but haven't been able to find dashi or tobanjan here in Calgary. Help!

Cheri said...

Muggins - dashi is very easy to find at an Asian market. Probably my favorite of the city's "Asian" markets is Arirang foods. It is happily situated right next door to Community Foods on 10 AVE SW. The brand I prefer is Ajinomoto and the label says 'HON-DASHI Bonito Fish Stock'. You can buy it in a box (little sachets inside) or a jar (bulk). IF you can't find or don't have dashi I have made the recipe using chicken broth The taste is not quite as authentic but it is still very good.

The Tobanjan (or toban djan) is just a chili bean paste. It is sometimes easy to find and other times more of a challenge. Look for it at Arirang - they have had it in the past. If they don't, just ask them for a chili bean paste. I like the LEE KUM KEE brand.

Good luck :)

Anonymous said...

I made this this week for dinner with some friends and it's a huge mega hit. Thanks mom!