Mapo Tofu, the legendary dish from China’s Sichuan Province, brings the heat and the numb in a meal that’s filled with intense flavors. It’s also one of the easiest dishes to make if you use the right techniques and ingredients. Once you follow our Mapo Tofu recipe a time or two, you’ll be a ‘Ma-Pro” in your kitchen.
Mapo Tofu is one of the most famous dishes in China. But what is it?
For starters, it’s a dish that’s built around soybean curd. However, in a strange culinary twist, Mapo Tofu is far from vegetarian.
It’s also a luscious dish where tofu magically absorbs a host of Sichuan flavors to become something better than the individual ingredients. Piquant and numbing flavors play against an umami-rich sauce that’s filled with fermented beans, chili and ground protein (usually pork or beef).
Authentic Mapo Tofu stands on its own but tastes even better with rice. Soft tofu provides a pillowy mouthfeel while, at the same time, absorbs one of the most full-flavored sauces ever created.
It’s a singular dish that defies comparison. It’s a dish that’s moved from the street to the restaurant and now to the home. The dish’s ingredients are far from western but Mapo Tofu is remarkably quick and easy to prepare in any kitchen.
The Chinglish History of Mapo Tofu
Language is a product of culture and reasoning and, in that sense, Chinese and English suffer from 180° of separation. If you attempt to literally translate Chinese to English the differences in culture become obviously apparent. Phrases like “Beware – Slippery when wet” become “Slip and fall down carefully” in Chinese.
We’ve traveled within China twice and have noticed the crazy (to us) translations. And, while the Chinese have recently attempted to rectify the situation, the art of Chinese to English translation has become a worldwide curiosity. Such is the case with Mapo Tofu.
The Pockmarked Grandmother
The word Mapo literally translates to Pockmarked.
Legend has it that around the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, a grandmother, whose face was pocked with smallpox scars, dished out the special stewed tofu in Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital. So it’s fair to assume that the loose translation of the dish is “Pockmarked Grandmothers Tofu.”
In western culture, most people would find this term highly insulting; however, the word could have a more open meaning in China. It could mean impoverished or down on your luck. We don’t know for sure. If the grandmother lived in New York or San Francisco, we may have called the dish the Poor Mrs. Chen’s Tofu. Without a time machine to truly see Mapo Tofu’s origins, we don’t know what’s true and what’s false.
Our best guess it that the dish originated from a stand run by a Sichuan grandmother and that this particular grandmother had excellent taste in food.
What is Mapo Tofu?
So what is this legendary Sichuan creation known as Mapo Tofu?
Is it a stir fry? Sure. It’s created in a wok and involves a high heat synthesis of chili infused oil, Sichuan flower pepper, tofu and ground meat. But there’s something richer about the dish that belies a simple toss in the wok.
Is it soup? Yes, the addictive liquor created in Mapo tofu can be eaten with a spoon. We’re sure that many Chinese have eaten the dish in a bowl this way sans rice. But the dish can be so piquant and flavorful that to eat it straight may cause a bit of mouth overkill.
Is it a stew? Here we may be onto something. To us, the dish’s comforting elements, deep flavors and rich textures mix so well with rice that you might be tempted to eat the combo multiple times a week.
Mapo Tofu is built with soft, comforting tofu as the star.
In the background, a special paste of fermented fava beans mixed with red Sichuan chilies called Doubanjiang provides the dish with deep umami backbone. Meanwhile, at the surface, numbing, almost menthol-like flavors of Sichuan flower peppers harmonize with searing, piquant capsaicin heat from chilies.
And let’s not forget the addition of ground meat. Grandma may have loved tofu but she also wanted to make sure her children didn’t starve. Vegetarians could omit the protein but that’s not how Grandma rolled.
So let’s call it a Sichuan stew that literally takes less than an hour to prepare. A stew in less than an hour? Miraculous! With a few Asian pantry ingredients, a block of tofu and a small amount of ground meat, you’re all set to create a nourishing meal or a featured dish at your next dinner party.
Mapo Tofu Ingredients
Here’s what you need to make Mapo Tofu at home:
Five of these ingredients form the cornerstone for great Mapo Tofu: Sichuan pepper, Red Chili Pepper (we used chili powder), Spicy Chili Bean Paste (Doubanjiang 豆瓣醬), Tofu and Ground Meat. The other ingredients complete the dish.
Buy the best available condiments. While there are various brands selling Chinese soy sauce, black vinegar, Chinese cooking wine and sugar, we’ve found that what you put into the dish directly impacts what ends up on your plate.
Some sites call for Silken Tofu but we use Soft Tofu in our recipe.
Silken Tofu, which can be highly fragile, may break too much when you cook it. Soft Tofu should be more than soft enough and still requires a certain degree of cautious handling, especially when it’s simmered. Please note that some silken tofu can be soft. Since it’s all a bit confusing it may be best to test different tofus in order to find the ideal product.
Stay away from Firm Tofu. While the firm product is far more durable, its rigid firmness will detract from the dish.
You may be wondering what type of meat to use in this recipe.
We prefer ground pork in our recipe since pork fat provides extra oil and richness. We’ve also used ground beef and that works well too. We have yet to use ground turkey and may try that protein in the future.
Also known as spicy broad bean paste, Sichuan Doubanjiang provides a unique spicy backbone to Mapo Tofu. The deep crimson (almost brown) paste also gives the dish its deep red color.
Buy a jar of Pixian Doubanjiang, our favorite brand, from Amazon.
Many people choose to mince this paste, which, out of jar, can have too coarse a texture, before using it. We choose to add a couple tablespoons of water and break it down with a stick blender. To us, it’s a cleaner method.
Sichuan Flower Pepper (花椒)
The husks of Sichuan flower peppers (which are a form of citrus) from the prickly ash tree impart the unique numbing flavor that’s a staple of Sichuan cuisine.
Sichuan pepper can vary in quality. The better pepper you can find, the better the final dish will taste. You’ll also want to find peppers that are cleaned of black seeds. Not only are these seeds bitter, but cleaning them from the husks can be a major chore.
Buy a bag of Sichuan flower peppers from Amazon if you don’t have them in your Asian pantry.
We toast our Sichuan peppers lightly in the work and the grind them in an electric coffee grinder (the kind with the blades).
Red (Hot) Chili Pepper
We use homemade chili powder in our Mapo Tofu recipe. Not everybody does the same.
YouTube chef Wang Gang uses a special method called knife chili in which he fries fresh and dried chilies to a crunch and then chops them to a course powder with a Chinese cleaver. The noted site Woks of Life uses fresh red chilies and fries them with the base oil used in the dish. These are both great methods; however the amount of burning heat generated by chilies can vary widely by type, freshness and amount.
We’ve found that making chili powder at home using a combination of dried Chinese chilies gives us maximum heat. In our view, capsaicin heat is fairly consistent in flavor across a wide spectrum of red chili varietals. If you only have super hot cayenne pepper powder, that should work in this recipe.
Since chili heat tolerance varies from person to person, we recommend starting with about a quarter teaspoon of chili powder and go from there. As you make this dish, you can experiment with fresh hot chilies or you can make a chili powder of your own.
For this recipe, we use a mirepoix of minced ginger and garlic along with the white part of a scallion to provide a base of flavor to the dish. Think of the combo as a Chinese sofrito.
Condiments/Sauces: Soy Sauce, Shaoxing Wine and Chinkiang Vinegar
Soy Sauce, Shaoxing Wine and Chinkiang Vinegar are the condiments/sauces that make Mapo Tofu taste “Chinese.”
The flavors of Soy Sauce and Shaoxing Cooking Wine are unmistakable. We also use the Shaoxing wine to deglaze the bottom of the wok. Chinkiang or black vinegar adds a bit of necessary acidity to the dish.
Purchase Asian condiments from Amazon.
Fermented Black Bean – Douchi (豆豉)
You can omit the black beans if you like but the soft texture and mellow flavor of these fermented soy beans add another dimension to the dish.
Buy fermented black beans from Amazon if you need this ingredient.
Chicken or Meat Broth
You can use a simple flavored broth to liquify the sauce. We use a quarter of a bouillon cube. If you have homemade chicken broth, we encourage using it in this recipe.
You can also use water but the final flavors won’t be so rich.
Corn Starch – The Thickener
Cornstarch slurry provides the sauce with a level of thickness and viscosity. In other words, cornstarch prevents the dish from being watery.
How to Make Mapo Tofu
We make Mapo Tofu in a carbon steel wok. However, you can easily make this dish in a nonstick pan if you don’t have a wok. It may not have the intense caramelized flavors generated from the high heat of the wok, but the dish will still taste great.
If you use a carbon steel wok, you’ll want to condition the wok by heating it until it smokes, applying a thin layer of oil and then dumping the conditioning layer. (If you have a teflon wok, pretreatment is not necessary but you won’t be able to cook at the same high temperatures.)
Buy a carbon steel wok and wok tools from Amazon if you need a wok for this and other recipes.
Start the recipe by cutting the tofu block crosswise.
Then cut squares vertically and horizontally. Your squares should be about 1 1/2 inches each.
Place the cut tofu in a deep bowl.
Boil hot water in a kettle or on your stove and gently pour it over the tofu. Let the tofu sit in the water for at least 10 minutes or until your ready to cook.
This step will eliminate the tofu’s raw flavor. Make sure you strain the tofu before you start cooking. Every minute counts once you start cooking in the wok.
Assemble your ingredients so that they’re in close proximity to your stove. You’ll want everything ready to go since things will move quickly once you start cooking.
Over high heat, pour a tablespoon of oil in the wok. Once the oil is smoking, gently add the ground meat. Cook the meat until just brown.
If you’re cooking over a high BTU wok burner, you may see occasional flames jump from the wok. That’s the wok-hei and it’s what you want!
As illustrated in the above photo, we may have generated too much flame in our wok. Be careful if you do the same. We recommend shaking the pan a bit until any flames subside.
Once the meat is browned, add the chili bean paste and cook until the meat turns fully red.
After mixing the chili bean paste and meat, add the ginger, garlic and scallion whites and heat until the mirepoix is softened – about two minutes.
Deglaze the sauce with the cooking wine and then add the soy sauce and vinegar.
Next, add the salt, sugar, black beans and optional MSG to the wok.
Add the chicken broth and then add the tofu. Lower the fire and gently stir for 30 seconds.
Add the Sichuan pepper powder and the chili powder. If necessary, add more until the presence of both elements is present. You should taste a unique mixture of hot and numbing flavor in every bite.
Keep cooking the tofu. Stir gently and push the tofu from the outside to the center of the wok.
Place the cornstarch in a small bowl and mix with a small amount of water (about a couple tablespoons) to create a slurry. Gently drizzle the cornstarch slurry into the wok.
Cook until a desired thickness is reached.
Serve Mapo Tofu in a bowl and serve with a side of rice.
You’re now ready to enjoy one of the greatest dishes in the world.
Mapo Tofu Recipe
With its blend of hot and numbing spices, Mapo Tofu is legendary Sichuan dish that's surprisingly easy to prepare at home.
- 12 ounce block of soft tofu cut into 1 1/2 " cubes
- 4 ounces ground pork
- 3 scallions - white part only
- 2 tablespoons ginger, minced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons Sichuan broad bean paste (Doubanjiang), coarsely chopped in a blender
- 1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon Chinkiang vinegar
- 1 cup chicken stock or low sodium chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon white granulated sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper powder (from whole peppercorns ground at home)
- 1 teaspoon red hot chili pepper powder
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon fermented whole Chinese black beans (Dochi)
- 1/8 teaspoon MSG (optional)
- 1 tablespoon of sesame oil (for garnish)
- sliced scallion greens (for garnish)
1. Place cubed tofu into a deep mixing bowl, cover with hot water and let sit for 10 minutes.
2. Place a wok over high heat and heat vegetable oil in the wok until it's smoking hot.
3. Once the oil is heated, brown pork or beef in the wok, breaking it up into small pieces.
4. Once the meat is just brown, add the chili bean paste and cook until the meat is deep red in color, about a minute.
5. Add the ginger, garlic and scallions to the wok and cook until softened slightly, about 2 minutes.
6. Pour in the Shaoxing wine to deglaze the pan. Then add the light soy sauce, Chinkiang vinegar, salt, optional MSG, black beans and sugar. Cook until just combined.
7. Pour the chicken stock in the wok. Cook for one minute.
8. Gently add the tofu. Bring the wok to a simmer and cook gently. stirring the tofu from the outside to the center of the wok for about 5 minutes.
9. Add a 1/4 teaspoon each of the chili powder and the Sichuan pepper powder. Gradually add more of the spices until a desirable level of heat and numbing spice is achieved.
10. Mix cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of water and then gradually add to the wok to thicken the dish.
11. Once the Mapo Tofu reaches the desired thickness, pour the finished dish into a large serving bowl and drizzle sesame oil on top, Add a light dusting of Sichuan pepper powder.
12. Sprinkle slices of scallion greens on top as a garnish and serve with a side of white rice.
- If soft tofu isn't available, you can use silken tofu.
- Follow your tastebuds to achieve a desirable level of heat and spiciness.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.
Original Publication Date: January 21, 2022