A Journey through Ma-Po Dofu

The other night, Marty and I decided we were in the mood for Chinese food. For some reason, I ordered a dish I haven’t had to date at our local Chinese restaurant—Ma-Po Dofu, sometimes also called, with the Japanese pronunciation, Ma-Po Tofu (the Ma-Po is short for “pockmarked grandmother”, which may describe how the dish sometimes looks). It is a Sichuanese dish, usually quite spicy, but is served all over Asia and in most Chinese restaurants in the U.S. as well.   I have to say I didn’t care for the version here—the tofu chunks were too large, and the sauce was not spicy enough and too heavy on the soy sauce.

This led me on a quest when I got home for the recipe I recalled from my graduate school days, from my fellow student and friend from Yale, Barbara Brooks. Barbara and I were in beginning Japanese class together in the Japanese Studies program at Yale—she did much better than me because she had already established some fluency in Chinese—and we became friends as well.   She was a good cook and because she was living with a Chinese roommate at the time, also had access to authentic Chinese style cooking.   Unfortunately, while I found a recipe in her handwriting for cheese balls (equally delicious, though not Chinese), I did not find the one for Ma-Po Dofu.

In the past several months since my diagnosis, I have reconnected with a number of old friends with whom I’d lost touch, and realized I had missed Barbara. We had last been in contact maybe 20 or more years ago, and I knew that she had gone on to get a Ph.D from Princeton, had married and had a daughter, and was teaching Japanese history at City College in New York. So I Googled her in the hope that I could locate an email address—and not only reconnect, but with the thought that perhaps she still had that great recipe for Ma-Po Dofu. To my shock and dismay, the first entry that appeared in my search was her obituary. She died at 60 more than three years ago—of metastatic breast cancer.

This hit me hard, not only because I regretted not contacting her before, but also because we had the same diagnosis. It led me to reminisce and find some pictures of the times we shared so many years ago, at Yale, in Japan, and even in Hong Kong. Some of those pictures—including the more serious one of Barbara posing for me at the Yale library (I was studying photography and developing my own film as a way of de-stressing from graduate school), are here. Who could have known then that we would share not only these good times, but the same fate in terms of the way we would leave the world?

partyyalein japan

Yalies at my apartment in Japan. Barbara is second from the left, directly behind me.

barbara at yale library

Barbara posing for me at the Yale Library.

Perhaps our most interesting adventure was my visit to her in Hong Kong, where her father and mother were stationed on a temporary basis.   Due to her father’s work, Barbara and her siblings grew up internationally, and she went to school in India and, if memory serves, Thailand as well. She showed me all over Hong Kong, and she cheerfully accompanied me by hydrofoil to Macao to the Temple of Kun Yam, which figures prominently in the opening paragraphs of my friend Warren Cohen’s history of Sino-American relations, America’s Response to China.   Here, in 1844, at the table pictured with the smiling Chinese man, the first treaty between the U.S. and China was signed. Barbara, with her fluency in both Japanese and Chinese, would go on to study and write about Sino-Japanese relations as well, making her own significant contributions to the understanding of East Asian diplomatic history. But in those days, we were two young women on a day’s adventure—as close to the then unrecognized People’s Republic of China as I would get until the early 1980s, when Warren and I made an advance trip for the governor of Michigan’s visit to Sichuan Province in preparation for the signing of a sister state agreement between Michigan and Sichuan (and though I don’t remember clearly, I’m sure I had some Ma-Po Dofu both in Hong Kong with Barbara and later in Sichuan).

I am both saddened by Barbara’s passing, and saddened that we share the same fate.  I guess we will meet again in the future–just not someplace in New York, but another venue altogether.

In other news, I am scheduled to start a new clinical trial at Mass General next week, or Plan E, as my doctor calls it (let’s hope the E stands for Effective).   I don’t technically meet all the qualifications for the trial—it is aimed at what’s called triple negative breast cancer, which means a complete absence of two hormonal markers and another marker called HER-2.   I am negative on two of the markers, but not the third. Nonetheless, my doctor and the study doctor felt that since the hormonal treatments have failed, I was a good candidate for this combo—it is a kind of Patriot Missile of therapies, as it delivers 200X the amount of drug to the cancer cells as IV chemo—and the study doctor was able to get me in. It will be somewhat harsher than the treatments I’ve had so far, but here’s hoping it also beats the cancer back more decisively.

6 thoughts on “A Journey through Ma-Po Dofu

  1. Here’s Pei Mei’s recipe for Ma-Po’s Bean Curd. We ate at her restaurant in Taipei back in the mid 1960s. My informed sources say she originated the dish.

    Ma-Po’s Bean Curd

    8 cubes of Bean Curd (2″ X 2″)
    4 oz. Ground Pork (or beef)
    1 t. Garlic chopped.
    1 T. Green Onion chopped
    1 T. Hot Bean Paste
    1 t. brown peppercorn powder
    2 T. Soysauce
    1 t. Salt
    2 t. cornstarch & 2 t. cold water for paste
    2/3 cup of stock.
    1 t. Sesame Oil
    3 cups. Peanut oil

    1. Cit the bean curd in 1/2 inch cubes and deep fry in hot peanut oilvfor 1/2 minute, (or boil in water).
    2. Remove all oil except 3 T., reheat and fry the ground pork well, then add garlic, hot bean paste, soy sauce, salt, soup stock, and bean curd. Boil for 3 minutes.
    3. Thicken with cornstarch paste, sprinkle with onion and sesame oil. Place in Bowl and sprinkle with brown peppercorn powder and serve.

    Hot red pepper oil may be added to this last.


    Liked by 2 people

  2. Continuous Prayers for you and that this new treatment will be a true miracle for you. Sorry for the loss of your dear friend who had such a beautiful relationship with you over the years. May God watch over you an give you your complete health back. Hugs . Miracles for you I pray.


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