“Ma” stands for “ma-zi” (Chinese: mázi, 麻子) which means pockmarks. “Po” is the first syllable of “popo” (Chinese: 婆婆, pópo) which means an old woman or grandma. Hence, mapo is an old woman whose face is pockmarked. It is thus sometimes translated as “pockmarked grandma’s beancurd”.
-“Mapo Doufu” on Wikipedia.
My grandma’s face is not pockmarked. Only a bit sun-spotted and crow-footed. I call her Ju-po, a term from her dialect, which I’ve only ever heard spoken by her children and late husband.
She was born on the first Sunday of November 1925, in Cha Sha village, Xinhui district, Guangdong province, about 80 miles south of Canton– a place hardly known for anything, or known at all, barely on the map even, though some say they produced exceptionally fragrant mandarin peels.
In 1964, she immigrated to Chicago to reunite with her husband (my grandfather), who had arrived (and whom she had not seen since) fourteen years earlier.
Two years later, they purchased a two-story brick house, a couple blocks from Loyola University, for $32,000. She lives there to this day. The house is 102 years old, and she is 92.
I never knew my grandma well. There were oceans of language and culture and age between us that I never learned how to cross.
Here’s what I do know, though: She’s like almost every grandma. Like most, she has a signature dish.
No, it’s not the dish I’m showing you today. It was (of all things) egg rolls. The chop suey kind. Authentically Chinatown, you could say, or even American, because that’s what chop suey is. But genuinely, they were better than any restaurant’s (though that may be because “grandma’s is always the best.”)
For her block parties, she would make hundreds of egg rolls, which would be eaten up and savored and asked about. She was so famous for them that the Chicago Tribune featured her story and recipe on the front pages of their food section. The framed article hangs proudly on her kitchen wall.
She’s never made mapo tofu. But then again, she’s not from Sichuan (in my opinion, the most exciting place to eat in China). All over Sichuan, grandmas like mine are cooking mapo tofu for their grandkids, and their kids, and their husbands– which is why it’s called “Pockmarked Old Woman Tofu.”
Though the world is rife with imitators– Korean-style, Japanese-style, Hong Kong-style, etc.– none can hope to match the original in terms of depth and sheer unforgettability. If you’ve tried mapo tofu and it didn’t blow you away, it wasn’t mapo tofu. Try the real thing once, and you’ll remember it forever.
With that said, I never understood: Why tofu? Tofu is alright, but not that texturally interesting, and needs to be eaten with rice.
So I starting wondering: What type of noodle could replace tofu in this dish, and maybe even do it better? Rice noodles have shine, but not enough chew. Wheat flour noodles have chew but no shine.
Enter Silver Pin Noodles: A combination of three ultra-starchy flours that results in the best of both worlds– shiny like glass, and tender yet with a satisfying chew; plus they’re rustic enough to make any grandma proud.
Oh yeah, these definitely hit the spot.
Dare I say, this is better than mapo tofu?
I’ll just say it straight: This is easily one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. I can’t even tell you how good this is because words literally don’t exist for something this good.
Even if the noodles WERE tofu, it would blow away all other mapo tofu I’ve tasted. Cuz you know, I’m a perfectionist, and I’ve tweaked every single component of this recipe to be the best thing you’ve ever tasted, too.
The noodles, though, really take this to another level.
So, here’s the end of my story. Or legend, if you’ll indulge me:
Someday, I’m gonna be an old man. Say 92. Hopefully not pock-marked. But likely sun-spotted, crow-footed, maybe permanently bent over. But I’ll have a lifetime of honed cooking chops and at least one surefire recipe the kids ’round my block will be begging for:
“OLD GRANNY MAN’S SILVER PIN NOODLES.”
(“Ma Gong Ngan Tsum Fun”)
And you can be damn sure that I’ll feed them all.
Boiled and strained:
INGREDIENTS: For the noodles: 90 grams of wheat starch 40 grams of rice flour 10 grams of tapioca starch Couple pinches of salt 200g boiling water For the rest: 100 grams ground pork, fatty (pork collar/neck is perfect here. DON'T use too much!) 2 tbsp Doubanjiang (fermented chili broadbean paste) 1 tsp fermented black soybeans (good ones smell fragrant, bad ones stink) 3 cloves of garlic, minced 1 tsp ginger, minced 1 tbsp chili powder 1/2 tbsp chili flakes 1 tsp sugar 1 tsp red and green Sichuan peppercorns, dry toasted and ground 1 cup chicken stock 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine 1 tsp soy sauce 1/2 tbsp sweetened black vinegar 1 tbsp corn starch, mixed with 1 tbsp water 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil Peanut oil, for frying 1 bunch of fresh cilantro/coriander*, leaves picked (*Lots of recipes for "Mapo Tofu" top with scallions, but trust me, cilantro/coriander is absolutely necessary.)
Here’s my formula for the starch/water breakdown:
In total, you want roughly 7 parts flour to 10 parts boiling water. To calculate how much water you’ll add, take your total volume (by weight) of flour and multiply it by 1.42.
For example, if you’re using a combined total of 140g of flour, you’ll need 140 x 1.42 = 200g of water.
For the starch, I’m using:
90g wheat starch (NOT WHEAT FLOUR) (64%)
40g of rice flour (29%)
10g of tapioca starch (7%)
Total=140g of flour
Instructions: Mix the three flours together with a pinch of salt. Add the boiling water and mix with chopsticks until cool enough to handle, then place on a cutting board and knead.
Cut into small bundles, roll into a thin log, and cut into marble-sized pieces. Roll each piece between your palms until it forms the proper shape.
Boil until the noodles float, then drain and submerge in cold water to stop the cooking. Drain again and keep in refrigerator with a splash of oil to prevent sticking.
Dry-toast the Sichuan peppercorns until fragrant. Grind with mortar & pestle.
The point of the pork is to add flavor, not a ton of protein, so don’t use too much meat. This is also why I prefer pork collar to beef. Once rendered, the fat adds a wonderful flavor.
To render the pork fat, pour a good amount of peanut oil in a wok or large pan and turn to medium-low heat. Add the minced pork to the cool oil and bring the temperature up until the meat begins to brown.
Once the meat begins to brown, add the Doubanjian and fry it to saturate the pork & oil with its flavor.
Next, add the garlic, ginger, chili powder, and chili flakes and fry until fragrant.
Add the fermented black soybeans, and after 15 seconds (don’t overfry), add the chicken stock, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, and sugar. Simmer until saucy but not soupy. Taste and add salt if necessary.
Add the Sichuan peppercorn and black vinegar.
Then add just enough cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce so that it will glaze the noodles. Don’t over-thicken– it shouldn’t be gloopy.
Add the noodles and stir to coat them with the sauce.
Pour into serving bowls and top with a splash of sesame oil and picked cilantro/coriander.