Ma po tofu, my Sichuanese cookbook says, is named after the smallpox-scarred wife of a Qing dynasty restaurateur. She is said to have prepared this spicy, aromatic, oily meal for laborers who laid down their loads of cooking oil to eat lunch on their way to the city's markets: "Many unrecognizable imitations are served in Chinese restaurants worldwide, but this is the real thing, as taught at the Sichuan provincial cooking school and served in the Chengdu restaurants." Indeed, this fiery dish spiked with chillis and tingly Sichuan pepper bears little resemblance to the ma po of Chinese takeouts.
The recipe calls for 1/2 cup of oil, as it's traditional to serve this dish with a good layer of chilli-red oil on top, but says it will work with as little as 3 tablespoons. I compromised with 1/4 cup of oil. It still was quite oily.
1. Cut a 1 lb. block of bean curd into 1-inch cubes and leave them to steep in very hot, lightly salted water. Slice 4 scallions at a steep angle. Grind a few Sichuanese chillis to a powder. Whisk 4 T. cornstarch with 6 T. cold water.
2. Add up to 1/2 cup peanut oil to the wok over a high flame and heat until smoking. Add 6 ounces ground beef and stir-fry until it is crispy and a little brown.
3. Turn the heat down to medium, add 2 1/2 T. chilli bean paste, and stir-fry 30 seconds until the oil is a rich red. Add 1 T. fermented black beans and the ground chillis and stir-fry another 30 seconds.
4. Drain the bean curd. Pour in 1 cup of chicken stock, stir, and add the bean curd. Mix it in gently by pushing the back of your ladle gently from the edges to the center of the wok — do not stir or the bean curd may break up. Season with 1 tsp. sugar and a splash of soy sauce and simmer 5 minutes.
5. Gently stir in the scallions. When they are just cooked, add the cornstarch mixture in 2 or 3 stages, mixing well, until the sauce has thickened enough to cling glossily to the meat and bean curd. Don't add more than you need. Finally, pour everything into a bowl, scatter with ground Sichuan pepper, and serve.