Step 0: Buy ingredients
Corn starch. I was pretty sure this was one of those things I should know about, but then again, I wouldn't exactly be writing this if I knew what I was doing. Living in Japan and not speaking much Japanese meant I couldn't just go up and ask someone. A quick search showed some white powder in a bowl next to an ear of corn. I thought about showing the picture to the nearby employee to try to get him to help me find the stuff, but I wondered if pointing at the corn and then the white powder would make him think I wanted powdered sugar for my corn. Do people even put powdered sugar on their corn? Would it be clear to anyone except me that this was obviously corn starch?
I decided it was too great of a risk and typed in "corn starch" in Google Translate, my lifebuoy in a sea of strange characters. The translation showed up as "コーンスターチ" and I slowly muttered the characters: "Kon su-ta-chi". That sounded like a bad joke, like adding "o" to automatically translate words into Spanish. I now had to decide between either accidentally putting powdered sugar instead of corn starch on my mapo tofu or potentially bringing shame to myself and my Japanese teachers by breaking up English so it "sounds" Japanese.
And then, in the corner of my eye, I saw a small bag of white powder. Oh, just normal sugar. But right above it? Lo and behold, the label actually read "コーンスターチ" (Kon su-ta-chi)! I quietly repented to Google for my sins; I should have known that the Almighty would guide me correctly especially since its answers were now powered by some snazzy machine learning.
The rest of my shopping was just as fun. I was that guy, the one who blocks busy moms from reaching the items they want because he's holding up his phone in front of his face trying to find the label that translates to "fermented spicy broad bean paste". I eventually settled for some Chinese paste in a jar that looked about right. I found scallions, although they looked way bigger than I remembered them to be, so I searched for images of scallions which didn't help because there weren't any pictures with say, a hand, next to it for scale. After much contemplation, I finally found the (much smaller) scallions hidden behind some other vegetable I didn't know the name of. I think I was previously looking at leeks? Who knows, man.
There were some ingredients I couldn't find, which I normally would have agonized over, but I decided to channel my ex who approaches cooking very differently than I do. I usually treat a recipe and its list of ingredients like an instruction manual for building a bomb, something that should never be deviated from. Oh, you put in a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon of salt? Sucks to suck, your whole meal just combusted into flames. She took a much more easygoing approach, substituting ingredients as she saw fit and eyeballing measurements rather than busting out the measuring spoons. I guess that's what happens when you know what corn starch is. I made peace with missing dried hot peppers and fermented black beans (not the paste; the employee I showed the translation to had no idea what I wanted and neither did I) and headed to the cash register.
Somehow, my basket of tofu, mushrooms, sesame oil, some Chinese paste in a jar, ginger, scallions, corn starch, garlic, eggs, and a small bag of rice came out to $45. It seemed a bit excessive given the portions I was buying were quite small, but maybe I was underestimating how long these ingredients would last me. (Spoiler alert: Nope. The ingredients were pretty much used up in a single meal, which was devastating because cooking was supposed to save money, not cost the amount of eating out five times. Later, I would express my distress to my Japanese teacher who told me that the grocery store I went to is for "rich people". Goddammit.)
Step 1-4: Cook vegetarian mapo tofu
Watching YouTube videos of Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey showcase different knife and cooking techniques. I was really proud of myself for not cutting any of my fingers off while dicing the mushroom caps, although you might have cut my hand off if you were there because of how slowly I was going.
I regretted, for the third time that week, getting a pot and skillet set that came with a single detachable handle to be used with both of them. I was seduced by how space efficient it would be to store (no handles jutting out!) but I didn't consider the very obvious consequence of having to detach the handle from the pot and attaching it to the skillet if I wanted to use it and vice versa. The other heartbreaking aspect of this is that with the handle attached to the skillet, the lid I bought for the skillet doesn't close all the way. Woe is me.
I forgot to put in the scallions.
Step 5: Judgment
It turned out that the dried red peppers I didn't get were crucial for giving the mapo tofu any semblance of flavor. Regardless, it was the best $45 mapo tofu I've ever had.
I need to find a grocery store for poor people.