ma po tofu for people who don’t eat tofu but enjoy stuffed peppers…with no rice

Don’t tell my Eastern European forebears, but I don’t really like stuffed cabbage or stuffed peppers or anything that includes that mixture of rice, ground meat, and tomato sauce.  I even have a hard time with dolmas, unless they significantly flavored with tart lemon juice and the rice-otherstuff ratio is leaning way on the side of the otherstuff.

This weakness has come in handy while rethinking stuffed peppers for my darling Retrogrouch, who has recently decided to cut out all grains, legumes, potatoes, and sugar in his diet.  He’s done quite well for himself, but it makes dinnertime a challenge if we’re not eating salad and a piece of meat.  I often make stuffed peppers out of Chinese stirfry or fried rice, mixing in the rice and some raw egg, and then baking it.  But it occurred to me that I could omit the rice altogether.

To use up a block of tofu we had in the refrigerator from his regular diet days, I thought I’d make that old Sichuan standby, ma po tofu.  I’m almost satisfied with Fuchsia Dunlop’s version, but I only had ground pork, not ground beef, and a head of savoy cabbage that wasn’t getting any younger, plus some crimson chard.

So I did my version of Ivy Manning’s Adaptable Feast, a cookbook with facing pages for adaptable recipes for mixed households (vegetarian/carnivore).  I made ma po for myself, and made no rice, ma po-flavored pork and brassica stuffed peppers for Retrogrouch.  I should write a cookbook series for all kinds of couples containing one normal and one crazy-ass person. Think of the possibilities! What would be excellent — not identifying which person in the couple is supposed to be the crazy-ass one.  In theory, it would be a cookbook wholly devoted to de-normativizing diets.  But we could still feel smug about our own niche.  Then everyone would be happy and dinnertime would cease to be a cesspool of argument.


The stuffed peppers turned out really well, actually, and I even managed one appetizing photo in a group that all looked like two Buddha-bellied gents in jaunty hats vomiting up vividly colorful insides.

And p.s. I also figured out the secret of ma po tofu: a big handful of cubed, raw savoy cabbage tossed in just prior to serving.  The crunch breaks up the monotonous softness of the tofu and mince.

There’s no reason you couldn’t substitute the ground pork for ground beef, or even chicken.  The green peppers can be swapped out with red peppers if you prefer that flavor, too.  This is a casual recipe, meant for adaptation based on what you have on hand.

Sichuan Stuffed Peppers, Ma Po Style

  • 2 small green bell peppers that can sit upright
  • 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil, divided
  • 6 oz. ground pork
  • 1/2 cup red onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ginger
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3-4 cups chopped leaves of any leafy brassica: chard, cabbage, bok choi, etc.
  • 1/4 cup green onions, chopped in one-inch lengths
  • 1 tablespoon Sichuan bean paste (douban jian) or substitute another chili bean paste
  • 1 tablespoon fermented black beans
  • a few Sichuan peppercorns (optional)
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup stock or water
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • light soy sauce, white pepper, chili oil to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Wash the peppers.  Slice off the tops of the peppers carefully, leaving a little hat for baking.  Clean the insides of the peppers, removing seeds and the inner ribs.  Rub the insides of the pepper with the sesame oil and a little salt.

Place the peppers in the oven (upright without the lids) while preparing the stirfry. Don’t forget about them!  You only want to soften them up a bit, no more than 10 minutes.

Brown pork until deeply brown on med-high heat.  After pork has lost its pinkness, add onion, garlic and ginger.  (For the rest of the browning period, watch so aromatics don’t burn.)  If at any time it seems the stirfry is burning, add a small amount of water or stock to cool down the pan briefly.  It will heat up again once the water has evaporated.

Turn heat down to medium, add the Sichuan bean paste and fermented black beans, and Sichuan peppercorns, and saute until they release a nice, fragrant smell.  Add cabbage or other greens with a quarter cup or so of water or stock to deglaze the pan.   Saute until cabbage is softened but not completely limp. This might take longer with cabbage than a softer green like chard.

Remove from heat and add the green onions.  Toss to combine.  Remove the peppers from the oven and let cool just enough to handle.

Taste the stirfry.  If it lacks salt, add some light soy sauce to taste.  Add white pepper if you’d like a little more spice.  Chili oil is another option.

Lightly beat 2 eggs with the sugar.  Add the egg mixture to the stirfry and combine well.

With a soup spoon or small serving spoon, spoon the stirfry into the peppers, packing tightly.  Add a little hat to each pepper.  Leftovers can be eaten as is with leaves of lettuce as little wraps, or you could quickly blanch extra cabbage leaves in water and make little cabbage wraps that bake alongside the peppers.

Bake for another 10 minutes or so, just until the eggs are fully set (peek under lid to see if egg has solidified and turned opaque).

To serve, suggest that the diner cut the pepper in half while still upright, then cut off pieces of pepper and filling from the two halves that result.

5 thoughts on “ma po tofu for people who don’t eat tofu but enjoy stuffed peppers…with no rice

  1. Ellen Singer 25 December 2010 / 9:10 pm

    Atkins diet?


  2. Juju 28 December 2010 / 3:15 pm

    I wanted to make this but couldn’t find the chili bean paste. The polite fella at Sunrise recommended some generic “Szechuan sauce” laden with MSG and preservatives.

    Can you reveal your source and/or recommend a substitution?



  3. Eugenia 28 December 2010 / 5:30 pm

    I can reveal my source, but it won’t make you happy. I’ve looked in every city I can for several years, and was finally able to find some in London this summer. I’ve purchased a decent one at Sunrise, not the Lee Kum Kee stuff but from Lian How, called “Hot Broad Bean Sauce.” It’s fine, but nothing compared to the real stuff. Plus, it looks like it was subject to a recall with other Lian How products in April 2009 for a salmonella scare, so they might not have it at Sunrise anymore. I know what you mean about the Szechuan sauce recommendation at Sunrise. He doesn’t understand that we want the real stuff. I also always try Yi Shen market, since they have other Sichuan products, but not the bean paste. Let’s make a pact to keep pressuring our Asian markets to stock chili bean paste, facing heaven dried chilis, and other sichuan peppers/pickles! I know there are many of us interested.


  4. Juju 2 January 2011 / 9:00 am

    I ended up using Roland’s Szhechuan Hot Paste, found at Capella:

    Not authentic, to be sure, but good enough that I’ll use it again.


  5. Eugenia 2 January 2011 / 9:28 am

    Glad you found one you liked, Juju. Just for comparison’s sake, the Lian How is back at Sunrise (image here: ). It looks like Roland’s includes sugar, ginger, and soybeans, which would make it a very different taste. Lian How has a spicy, vinegarry taste (no sugar and 100% broad beans).


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