Warm up with Ma Po style chicken dish

Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Perhaps no Sichuan dish is as famous as Ma Po, a rich, spicy-hot dish made with tofu and minced ground pork. Loved for its aromatic heat, it’s perfect for those brisk winter days where the cold seeps into your bones and even your coziest sweater can’t warm you up.

The spice that gives Ma Po its kick isn’t the expected chili pepper, but Sichuan peppercorn. Fragrant, with a hint of citrus, the reddish-pink berries of the prickly ash tree numb the lips upon impact.

In this recipe from Mark Bittman, ground chicken and green beans trade places with the traditional pork and tofu, and the silky sauce is made not with fermented bean paste and hot chilies but from the pantry staples of ketchup, cider vinegar and cornstarch. He also adds ground Sichuan peppercorn instead of the whole petite berries. You can find either at most Asian markets.

What the dish lacks in authenticity, he writes in “Dinner for Everyone,” “is more than compensated by its familiar flavor and convenience.”

I used lettuce cups, but you could serve it with rice or noodles for a more substantial bite. Or, just spoon it into a bowl right out of the pan. Also on the nontraditional side: I added chopped pistachio for crunch and lots of fresh chopped cilantro.

Mark Bittman's take on Ma Po, a Sichuan dish featuring tofu in a spicy sauce, is made with ground chicken, green beans and Sichuan peppercorns for heat. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)


PG tested

  • 3 tablespoons good vegetable oil (I used sesame)
  • 11 / 2 pounds ground chicken
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon red chili flakes, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorn
  • 1 pound green beans, trimmed
  • Butterhead, green leaf or romaine lettuce, washed, dried and separated into leaves
  • Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
  • Chopped pistachios, for garnish

Heat oil in a large skillet on medium-high. Add chicken, sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s browned and crisp in places, 5-10 minutes.

While chicken cooks, mash black beans with a fork in a small bowl. Add ketchup, vinegar, cornstarch, sesame oil, chili flakes and Sichuan peppercorn. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stir and mash until a thick paste forms.

Add the mixture to the browned chicken, stirring until coated and fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add 1 / 2 cup water and green beans and stir. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat so the mixture bubbles steadily and cover.

Cook, stirring once or twice, until the sauce thickens and the beans are as tender as you like, 5-10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.

To serve, spoon chicken mixture into lettuce leaves. Top with chopped cilantro and chopped pistachio.

Serves 6.

— adapted from “Dinner for Everyone” by Mark Bittman (Clarkson Potter, $40)