Dish No. 73, Ma Po Tofu at Ennju


What happens when a Japanese cook reinterprets a Sichuan standard? Go to Ennju to find out.

Spicy food has lately become more popular in Japan, where not too long ago, chile heat was limited to green shisito peppers or the red flakes in togarashi. But gradually, spiciness has been worming its way into Japanese dishes, most notably into ramen with spicy miso paste, which is spicy as hell and now available in many ramen parlors.

The wildfire popularity of Sichuan food is causing key dishes to be imported into the Japanese culinary canon, and you can see it taking place at Ennju, a long-running and quite satisfactory fast-food establishment just west of Union Square. There, ma po tofu has become a regular special. Even if you don’t see it on the chalkboard menu, the cooks can be persuaded to make it for you special, Japanese style.

While the original — named after a pockmarked Chengdu vendor of a century ago — wallows in chile oil and Sichuan peppercorns, Ennju’s version is comparatively mellow, with only a little spiciness, featuring a ground-beef and bean sauce ladled over neat cubes of curd. Two painfully yellow daikon pickle slices decorate the top, telegraphing the fact that the dish has become Japanese, and is now a good cheap lunch near Union Square.

Hurrying past Ennju