Naperville spot shares Szechuan tofu secret

May 11, 2011 9:46:27 AM PDT
Tofu still gets a bad rap despite its association with more popular dishes, like miso soup and edamame.

The bean curd has long been a healthy substitute for meat as it absorbs whatever you cook it with. The Hungry Hound says there's one Chinese tofu dish that's been around for centuries, and it shows up frequently at a tiny restaurant in Naperville.

Mapo tofu comes from the Szechuan province, which means there's a significant amount of heat involved, by way of peppercorns, chilies and hot oil. The dish is a staple on every Szechuan menu in town, including one in Naperville that manages to serve several delicious dishes, all featuring tofu.

Don't judge a menu by the lunch rush. At Mapo, a tiny Chinese restaurant in a Naperville strip mall, lunch specials with egg rolls and fried rice dominate. But look closer at the menu -- and the restaurant's name -- and you'll discover it refers to a famous tofu dish.

"Over a century ago, when ladies started cooking this tofu dish, a right flavor and a lot of texture...and then this dish got so popular throughout, it became a legendary dish so it's well known all over the world," said Eric Tan, the Manager at Mapo.

Firm tofu is wok-fried with leeks, Szechuan black beans and chili oil. The result is a dish with texture and bite, but no meat.

Same goes for the sesame tofu, which begins with firm tofu wedges that are tossed in cornstarch just to coat them, then deep-fried until golden brown on the outside. The wedges are coated in a sweet sauce and buried beneath a shower of sesame seeds.

Tofu can also be combined with seafood, and at Mapo, a hulking casserole is the answer: Shrimp, scallops, crab and calamari are intermingled with the firm, fried tofu, as well as earthy wood ear mushrooms.

"The casserole is more complicated but yet very flavorful. It has the scallop or shrimp and tofu and the wood ear mushroom and it's cooked in with the peppercorn Szechuan red oil," Tan said.

Tan says many guests during the day want the quick lunch special, but there are also plenty who return for the nuanced tofu dishes, especially the namesake.

"They do come here from all over for that original flavor," said Tan.

Traditionally, the dish also has minced beef or pork, or even water chestnuts, so if you're vegan or vegetarian, best to ask ahead of time about the exact ingredients in a restaurant's particular version.

1563 N. Naper Blvd., Naperville

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