Great food comes with a story.
That’s certainly true for mapo tofu, a signature dish from Sichuan province, China. It brings the taste and history.
I’ll never forget my first time eating mapo tofu, that pleasant array of flavors. Pungent, spicy, fresh, tender, fragrant, and crispy…all at once!
It was love at first bite.
And I had to just know (and eat) more.
The Story Behind Mapo Tofu
Understanding the history of mapo tofu first requires understanding its name in Chinese: mapo dòufu.
Let’s break down the characters for mapo doufu (麻婆豆腐):
- 麻婆 (mápó): Má stands for mázi (麻子), which means pockmarks; Pó stands for pópo (婆婆), which means old woman or grandma.
- 豆腐 (Dòufu): Dòufu means tofu. Simple enough!
If we literally translate mapo doufu, we get “pockmarked grandma’s tofu.” Intriguing. But what inspired that name?
You’ll find different tales when researching the history of mapo tofu. Each story details an old lady with pockmarks who lived in Chengdu during the Qing Dynasty in the 1860s.
Essentially, three scenarios exist:
- The old lady, Mrs. Chen, ran a restaurant called Chen Mapo Doufu Restaurant (a restaurant by the same name exists today). Located near Wanfu Bridge in north Chengdu, Mrs. Chen’s restaurant became famous for her unique approach to tofu. The sharp contrast of color and taste delighted laborers, poets, and others who gathered at the restaurant. And its popularity spread.
- After Mr. Chen died, Mrs. Chen ran Chen Xing Sheng Restaurant in north Chengdu. Laborers would rest under the nearby Wanfu Bridge. To save money, the laborers would bring their own oil, tofu, and beef, and would ask Mrs. Chen to cook for them. Mrs. Chen made do with what was given her, adding in green onions, chili bean paste, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, ginger, and other flavors. Her mapo tofu recipe soon became famous.
- Because of the pockmarks on her face, the old lady lived outside Chengdu as an outcast. One stormy night, a businessman needed accommodation. Happy to have a guest, the old lady made a dish of grilled tofu and minced pork. The flavor swept the traveler off his feet, and he spread the word to others in Chengdu. From there, mapo doufu became a household dish in the region.
As you can see, the history of mapo tofu has turned into a legend of sorts. I like each version. Each story is a testament to the ingenuity of the chef and her commitment to bold, exceptional taste.
Today, what’s definitely true is that mapo doufu has become one of the famous foods of Chengdu, a city now recognized as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. In fact, mapo tofu can be found on nearly every Sichuan food menu around the globe, from eateries in San Francisco to London to Singapore. Its tongue-tingling flavor has won over the world.
Mapo Tofu Recipes: Making the Classic Dish
As a stir-fry dish, you’ll cook the food at a very high temperature. Prepare all the ingredients before cooking. This way, you can get the flavor and texture right.
Note: You should be able to find most mapo tofu ingredients in the Asian section of your grocery store. Chinese grocery stores will certainly have everything you need.
You’ll find many mapo tofu recipes online. Here, we’ll go over a traditional mapo tofu recipe and a vegetarian mapo tofu recipe.
Traditional Mapo Tofu Recipe
Get these ingredients:
- 12-14 ounce block of firm tofu (slice into small squares)
- 4 ounces of cooked ground meat (pork or beef)
- 1 teaspoon of soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon of sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon of ginger (minced or powder)
- 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 2 medium cloves of garlic (minced)
- 2-3 stalks of green onion (finely chopped)
- 1-3 teaspoons of Sichuan peppercorns (depends on spice preference)
- ½ cup of chicken broth or water
- 2-3 tablespoons of black bean paste
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1-2 teaspoons of chili oil (depends on spice preference)
Follow these steps with your mapo tofu recipe:
- Stir the ground meat with the sugar, soy sauce, and ginger. Set in a bowl to the side.
- Combine cornstarch with water or chicken broth in a bowl. Mix well and set to the side.
- Get a wok or large nonstick skillet. Heat the sesame oil and cook the peppercorns until they’re crispy and a dark brown color. Scoop the peppercorns out and set them on a paper towel.
- Add the ground meat mixture into the wok and cook it thoroughly.
- Mix in the black bean paste, chili oil, and minced garlic.
- Add the tofu and let it simmer. Don’t stir the tofu. Flip it so it doesn’t lose its shape.
- Grind up the peppercorns in a coffee grinder.
- Add in the water and cornstarch mixture and mix until it has fully dissolved in the wok. Let it simmer and test the flavor.
- Garnish the mapo tofu with green onions and ground Sichuan peppercorns. Test the flavor. If it is too spicy, add in more sugar. If it’s not too spicy, top with more peppercorns.
- Put the mapo tofu on a plate with rice. And eat!
Vegetarian Mapo Tofu Recipe
Most vegetarian mapo tofu recipes follow the traditional method. To maintain the texture and flavor, use fresh shiitake mushrooms in place of ground meat.
Whether you plan to cook traditional or vegan mapo tofu, here are some additional recipe tips:
- Mapo doufu goes very well with steamed rice!
- Look for Sichuan peppercorns that have the black seeds removed. These seeds have a sandy-like texture and the higher-quality peppercorns have these seeds removed before hitting the market.
- Use sesame oil instead of vegetable oil for better flavor.
- I recommend Sichuan Pixian chili bean paste (Pixian Doubanjiang). This will give you an authentic flavor and knocks two ingredients off your list at once (chili oil and bean paste).
Mapo Tofu and Sichuan Food: A Culinary Adventure
“And if you ever have a hangover—and you will, my friend, you will—this will scare the evil right out.”
- Anthony Bourdain, talking about mapo tofu
When I lived in Chengdu, China, I quickly realized every Sichuan dish packs taste (nothing bland here!). And the sheer variety of flavors, from numbingly spicy (málà 麻辣) to sweet-and-sour (táng cù 糖醋), takes you on a culinary adventure at every meal.
When it comes to the best of Sichuan food, mapo tofu has a place at the top. If you haven’t tried it yet, do so. You’ll never forget that first bite.
Now you know about the history of mapo tofu and how to make the dish. There’s only one thing left to do: EAT!