This post was a guest post on a blog that I love, Just Bento, in October 2009. I’ve posted it here for continuity and posterity. I encourage you to check out the other posts on Just Bento (and Just Hungry) as Maki has some of the clearest Japanese recipes you will find on the web (and some non-Japanese as well), and is currently one of my favorite food bloggers.
I know this might be looking a bit too decadent to any lover of authentic Mabo Dofu, but, well, no Japanese dish stays very authentic in my hands for too long. Mabo Dofu, an originally Chinese dish popular in Japan, is beef and tofu simmered in a red miso-ginger-garlic-chili sauce. Over the years, it has become a staple in my household. Like everything else I make regularly, the recipe changes slightly each time depending on what ingredients and condiments we have around.
The more I make and eat mabo dofu, the more I love it. I used to use sauce packets that you can find in many Asian groceries, but then I realized how much more easy, cheap, and tasty it was to make the sauce myself. While the list of ingredients looks long, it’s a very simple dish to prepare. After you have it once, you may even start adding some of the main ingredients to your fridge and pantry staples. Before this dish entered my life, I had an aversion to tofu. Having tofu in a dish where it is not meant as a substitute for something else changed my perspective on the protein completely. This is my favorite use for tofu.
Even though I did not grow up eating Japanese food and am not Japanese, this dish tastes like home to me. The suppleness of the tofu, the chewy meatiness of the beef, the silky, salty, tanginess of the sauce that permeates all the other elements, coupled with the firm stickiness of the rice, and the cool crisp of the pickles I tuck in along side make this an adventure for the taste buds.
This is one of my absolute favorite bentos to take because it tastes even better the next day. I make it for dinner and pack up the “leftovers” right after I make it by filling my lunch container with the desired amount of rice topped with a few scoops of mabo dofu. I garnish with pickles, allow it to cool, close the container and pop it in the fridge. By lunch time the next day, the sauce has wonderfully permeated the rice and the little rice bowl bento is ready to eat. While it is tasty at room temperature, I like to heat it up just a little if possible so that I can enjoy the aroma and loosen up the rice again.
Recipe: Mabo Dofu
Makes 4 hearty servings
- 1 package of firm or extra firm tofu
- 1/2 to 3/4 lb of ground beef
- 1 medium onion, or about about 1/2 cup thickly chopped
- 2 tbsp of your favorite type of miso
- 3 cloves of garlic (minced)
- 1 1/2 tbsp fresh ginger (grated, crushed or minced)
- 1 tbsp dried red pepper flakes, chili or cayenne pepper to taste
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tsp of sesame oil (reserve half for cooking the onions in)
- 1 tsp of sugar
- 1/2 cup of water
- 3 cups (dry measurement) brown or white Japanese rice, cooked
- Begin by making the sauce. Mince the ginger and garlic finely (I use a tiny grater to mince them into a paste) into a bowl. Add the miso, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar and red pepper flakes. Stir until smooth. Add water. The sauce should be just thick enough to coat the stirring utensil and drip off a little bit.
- Loosen the raw beef so that it does not cook in one mass.
- Heat up a roomy wok or pan. Add the sesame oil and the chopped onions. Don’t worry if there isn’t enough oil for the onions to cook, the beef and the sauce will add more later.
- Once the onions are translucent, add the beef and let it brown.
- When the beef is more brown than red, pour in the sauce. Stir to coat.
- Drain the tofu and cut into 3/4 inch (or 2 cm) cubes. You don’t have to drain every last drop of water out.
- When the sauce bubbles and begins to reduce, fold in the tofu, being careful not to break up the cubes too badly. Lower the heat and cover.
- This is when I generally start the rice cooking in the rice cooker (or on the stove). When the rice is ready, turn off the heat on the simmering mabo dofu, uncover and stir.
I usually have this as a donburi (rice bowl) type of dish, but mabo dofu can be used in many other ways. A half cup of the beef-tofu-sauce mixture can be added to a bowl of ramen (or udon) and hot water for a dish I’ve seen referred to as “mabo men”. Other meats can be substituted, or left out entirely (though this may change the consistency if not adjusted for).
While I do occasionally experiment with new ways to enjoy mabo dofu, my favorite is eating it atop a bowl of nutty brown rice with bright red pickled ginger, yellow pickled daikon, and pickled cucumbers (not quite pictured above), savoring each bite with a little of everything. Let me tell you, I feel like the luckiest person in the world when I open up my lunch at work and remember what I get to eat that day.
About this author: I'm a New Yorker who would rather cook than go out to restaurants. Sometimes I think I may be in the wrong city for that. Then I remember the exotic ingredients I'd be hard-pressed to find if I lived somewhere else. My cooking style is an eclectic range of everyday-American, Italian, middle-eastern, with extensive forays into Japanese cuisine, and some pit-stops into Indian and African cuisines. I love to try my hand at recreating dishes I taste. While I enjoy most anything with a flavor, from high cuisine to instant junk food, I have a soft spot in my belly for home-style cooking no matter the geographic or ethnic origin. Read more from this author...