Chengdu Challenge #10: Mapo Doufu (Mapo Tofu)
The Queen of Mapo Doufu Recipes~~
Best tofu dish in the world? Mapo tofu, without doubt.
You may be thinking that’s not saying much. But it is. In fact, forget that it features tofu. I’ll put this beefy, spicy, chili bean dish up against your favorite American beef-and-bean chili any day.
I’ve been making mapo doufu—“pock-marked mother’s bean curd”—for years. It was one of the first dishes I learned from our brilliant chef Qing Qing, who taught Lotus Culinary’s cooking classes at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in the early days.
But over the years, my version had somehow gone astray. It was still good, but it wasn’t great. It had evolved into something not quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on what that was. So I decided it was time to get back to basics, and relearn this classic from scratch. I could no longer turn to Qing Qing, as he’s gone on to bigger things as part of the team running the culinary institute’s hotel, but I could turn to The Cookbook, which contains the school’s own nominee for the definitive recipe.
And once again, The Cookbook did not let me down. This is the mapo doufu I remember from the best versions I’ve eaten in Chengdu. A version that—dare I say it—matches Chen’s Mapo Doufu, the chain of restaurants that traces its founding to the one and only “pock-marked Mother Chen,” who created the dish eons ago. Chen’s still serves a mean version at the original of its many Chengdu outposts.
Here’s how The Cookbook tells the story:
During the reign of Emperor Tongzhi of the Qing Dynasty, the wife of the owner of Chen Xing Sheng Restaurant invented a way to cook tofu, which featured distinct spicy flavor. To distinguish it from other braised tofu, people named the dish Mapo Tofu, which in Chinese means pock-faced granny on account of the fact that there were pocks on her face.
From The Cookbook’s recipe I realized the error of my ways: too much meat, not enough chili flakes and, most importantly, too little oil. Here is what real mapo doufu needs:
- A deep-red oil slick on top (see all photos here). That’s just the way it is and always has been in Sichuan. And the way it tastes best.
- A heaping helping of Pixian douban jiang, or chili bean paste from Pixian (and nowhere else). It’s red, and it’s earthy-spicy, and it defines mapo doufu. The color of your mapo doufu will vary with the color of your douban jiang, which can range from bright red to reddish brown. I’ve found that the version of Pixian douban jiang that has added oil (hong you douban) is great in this dish because of its super redness.
- A small helping of fermented black soybeans (dou chi). Used across China, these umami bombs are easily found in Chinese markets.
- Bright-red chili flakes, preferably from Sichuan or Korea.
- Of course, tofu’s pretty important too. Please use an Asian brand like, in the U.S., Sincere Food’s Lotus brand or House Foods. And even though most people use firm tofu, I much prefer the soft type. I adore the fresh soybean flavor and cloud-like texture, and I don’t mind if it breaks apart just a little when it cooks.
- What mapo doufu doesn’t need is much meat. In almost every Sichuan dish that calls for minced meat, that meat will be pork. In mapo doufu, that meat is beef. But you don’t need much. The school’s recipe calls for only 2 ounces—1/8 pound or 60 grams. And that is plenty. The beef is only a (wonderful) garnish.
- Baby leeks or scallions. And lots of them.
- A dusting of hua jiao, or ground, roasted Sichuan pepper.
And that’s it. Ready for a chili cook-off? I’ll bring the tofu!
- 2 ounces (60 grams) ground beef
- 6 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
- 2 tablespoons Pixian chili bean paste (douban jiang)
- 2 teaspoons fermented black beans (dou chi)
- 2 teaspoons chili flakes (Sichuan or Korean)
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 4 to 5 scallions, cut into 1-inch lengths
- 1 block Asian soft tofu (14 ounces or 400 grams), cut in ¾-inch dice
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
- 1 teaspoon ground, roasted Sichuan pepper
- Heat wok until hot. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and heat until just begins to smoke. Add beef and stir-fry, breaking it into a small mince, until it is cooked through and starting to brown. Remove the beef and hold.
- Clean the work, return it to heat until hot, then add the remaining 5 tablespoons oil. Heat briefly, then add the chili bean paste, fermented black beans and chili flakes. Let these sizzle until fragrant, being careful not to burn them. Add the chicken stock, soy sauce and scallions.
- Return the minced beef to the wok. Add the tofu squares, and simmer for a couple minutes, gently tossing the tofu with the sauce. Add the cornstarch slurry a bit at a time until the dish thickens. You may not need it all.
- Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with ground Sichuan pepper.