I admit, I even like the americanized versions of this dish that you get at chinese restaurants. You usually see it as bigish cubes of tofu in an orange colored, garlicky sauce with red pepper flecks in it. There's no secret ingredients here, but I did manage to make it in the microwave. Less cleanup, and slightly less garlic fumes in my house.
You will need a microwavable casserole dish with a good lid.
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 an onion, sliced thin
between 1/2 and 1 teaspoon of hot chili sauce
a generous tablespoon fermented black bean sauce
about a tablespoon of light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 lb firm tofu
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Cube the tofu and put the chili sauce, bean sauce, soy and sugar on it. Stir it well and set it aside.
Put the onion, garlic, ginger & oil in the casserole and microwave, covered, on high for about 5 or 6 minutes. Periodically stir the onions to keep them from burning. When the onions are translucent and are developing little brown places, add the tofu and stir it up. Microwave until it starts bubbling. Stir from time to time so it heats evenly. When it's bubbly, mix the cornstarch in half a cup of water and add to the tofu. Stir, and continue to cook for a minute or so until the starch thickens and goes transparent.
There is very little that could go wrong with this recipe, but here are a couple things anyway-
1. As with all microwave cooking, times here are highly approximate. A lot depends on the wattage of your appliance, the temperature of your ingredients, dishes, and house, etc etc. Don't worry about time.
2. Really the only thing that you need to be sure of is that the cornstarch is cooked. It has to be brought to a boil or it won't thicken. Don't worry, it happens quite effortlessly.
3. Feel free to improvise. Lots of recipes for this have a green thing in it, usually peppers. Some of them call for ground beef. (Why?) I bet it would be great with broccoli and water chestnuts, or baby bok choi. I usually just cook some greens to go as a side dish, so I don't bother putting them actually in the tofu.
4. If for some reason you do want to make this on the stove you can, of course. Use a heavy pan, brown the onions garlic & ginger in oil first, then add the tofu & seasonings, then the starch & water. Pretty simple.
Dad told me something about this dish. I don't remember if he claimed to have met and dined at the house of the original Ma Po, but he did say that "real, authentic" ma po tofu is a very different thing than this. For one thing, it should be volcanically hot. Pepper hot, that is. For another, tofu in cubes is not the correct format.
Tofu is made a lot like cheese, initially. You soak dried soybeans for a day or two, you grind them into a slurry with water, drain out and discard the solids, then curdle the proteins in the liquid. The curds are pressed together to make the bricks of tofu you get at the store. To make authentic ma po tofu, you should take the loose curds and use those in the dish rather than the pressed blocks. I imagine that it would have a very delicate texture.