Tender tofu cooked in an aromatic and spicy sauce, accompanied by minced meat, Mapo tofu is one of the most popular ways to prepare tofu in China.
Tofu (aka Doufu, Bean curd) is one of my favourite ingredients. As a very healthy source of protein, it can be prepared in so many scrumptious ways: in salads, stir-fries, stews, soups, etc. It never fails to please my palate. Once I asked a group of non-Chinese friends who had experience of real Chinese food: “What is your favourite tofu dish?” They all answered : “Mapo tofu!” It didn’t surprise me at all. Today I’d like to show you how to cook this classic dish the authentic way (without any western adaptation).
Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐) is named after its inventor Mapo (means pockmarked elderly lady) who ran a small restaurant over a century ago in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. It’s a signature dish of Sichuan cuisine, presenting its characteristic flavour: Mala, namely numbing and spicy. Over recent years, Mapo tofu started appearing on the menus of oversea Chinese restaurants. Unfortunately, I’m disappointed most of the time (many Chinese living aboard have similar complaints). What is often served are just plates of spicy tofu. In terms of the general flavour, the level of hotness and the texture, such dishes have little to do with what you should expect from Mapo tofu.
In fact, like many Chinese dishes, Mapo tofu is much simpler to prepare than it seems to be. Get the right ingredients and follow the instructions, then you will be on the way to success. For a better understanding of Mapo tofu, five Chinese characters are used to describe the key features of this dish:
- 麻 (numbing): This particular taste comes from Sichuan peppercorn. Use freshly ground Sichuan pepper if possible (read related post here).
- 辣 (spicy): Both of Sichuan chilli bean paste (aka spicy Doubanjiang) and chilli powder contribute to the spiciness. The latter is also used to enhance the reddish colour of the dish. Different brands of Sichuan chilli bean paste may vary in saltiness, hotness and texture. Adjust the volume accordingly. I normally use Pixian Douban (郫县豆瓣), a well-known variety, which needs to be coarsely chopped prior to cooking.
- 香 (aromatic): Apart from Sichuan chilli bean paste which makes the dish flavoursome, fermented black beans (aka black beans) also provides a particular aroma. Remember to rinse and chop them.
- 烫 (physically hot): Mapo tofu needs to be served hot for the best taste. However, since tofu holds heat very well, I recommend that you break the tofu cubes apart with chopsticks before putting into your mouth.
- 嫩 (tender): It’s better to use Chinese soft tofu (嫩豆腐) for tender texture. The tofu I bought from Chinese shops in England is marked as “medium firm”. I found it great for this dish (Japanese-style silken tofu is not recommended). Make sure you blanch the tofu cubes in salty water first. This is to make the cubes less breakable. And you need to be gentle when handling them throughout the cooking process.
In an authentic version of Mapo tofu, beef or pork mince are used to enhance the flavour. If you wish, skip it or replace it with vegetarian ingredients, such as shiitake mushroom or soybeans. I will write a separate post in the future on how to convert this classic dish to a vegetarian-friendly version.
In terms of the level of hotness and numbing sensation that Sichuan pepper provides, my Mapo tofu recipe is not adapted for non-Sichuanese tastes. You might find it too tangy if you are not accustomed to it. Please feel free to alter the amount of relevant ingredients. You may also add a little sugar to reduce the spiciness as well as the saltiness.
Hope you find this recipe helpful. If you like Sichuan cuisine as much as I do, my blog is the right resource to follow. Stay tuned by subscribing to my blog (in the sidebar) or follow me on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest.
Have a yummy day!