Chengdu Challenge #10: Mapo Doufu (Mapo Tofu)

mapo doufu

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.

mapo doufu

Mapo doufu, along with other Sichuan classics, at a famous restaurant in Chengdu

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.

mapo doufu

Chef Qing Qing shows us how to cut the doufu

mapo doufu

Chef makes sure I don’t slice my hand along with the wobbly bean curd

mapo doufu

My end result with Chef’s guidance

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.

mapo doufu

The version served nowadays at Chen’s Mapo Doufu in Chengdu, the originator of the dish

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!

mapo doufu

The Sichuan Gourmet Association named this the definitive mapo tofu recipe

Chengdu Challenge #10: Mapo Doufu
Author: 
 
Adapted from Sichuan (China) Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, published in China in 2010 by the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and the Sichuan Gourmet Association.
Ingredients
  • 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
Instructions
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with ground Sichuan pepper.

 

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27 Responses

  1. Thanks very much for this recipe and your blog. Thanks to my neighbor I have recently had my eyes opened wide to Szechuan cuisine and I am a big, big fan!

    I use a very similar recipe that calls for ground pork instead of beef and I love it. While not a standard part of any recipe I have found, I have lately added some chopped bok choy at the end for color and texture. Also, I echo your thoughts on the Pxian Bean Paste. Buy the right stuff and it makes all the difference in this recipe. My recipe came to me from a Chinese friend who got it from his mom. She specifically wrote in the recipe when she gave it to him “Do not substitute – Go find the real thing”. I followed her advice and could not be happier with this dish!

    My recipe calls for boiling the chopped tofu for 2 minutes and then setting aside before you do anything else. Not sure why but I have skipped this step and it doesn’t seem to make any difference. Any ideas?

    The only issue I have is that now have (as a gift from that same friend) a great big tub of Douban Jiang. I am anxious to try your eggplant recipe but could you please post others that also use this wonderful ingredient?

    Thanks very much. Keep up the great work. I am thoroughly enjoying your posts!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks for the kind feedback, Jim! I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying your big tub of real douban jiang. I have certainly meant to post more recipes using it, but lately life has gotten in the way of this blog. I promise to get back to it, but in the meantime, don’t miss this recipe for twice-cooked pork: http://themalaproject.com/chengdu-challenge-8-twice-cooked-pork-hui-guo-rou/
      I’m all for making these classic recipes your own as you have done. I often add green beans to mapo doufu to make more of a one-wok meal. Thanks so much for your note!

  2. A. West says:

    Thanks so much for this blog. My wife grew up in Chengdu and we still have relatives there, and visit every few years. I’ve cooked classic Chengdu dishes for the 18 years we’ve been married. Getting good Sichuan peppercorn is often a challenge, and I’ve never been particularly happy with my chili oil I’m also going to go look for better chili bean paste. Fortunately, NJ has a large number of Chinese groceries.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks for your lovely note. You’re lucky to be married to a woman from Chengdu. Though it sounds like you do all the Sichuan cooking, so maybe she’s the lucky one! Good luck in your search for quality Sichuan ingredients. If you are like me, the haul you bring back from Chengdu just doesn’t last long enough. Appreciate your feedback!

  3. Christian says:

    Hi from Sweden!

    Thanks for your page, lots of help in my attempts to make a great Mapo 🙂 Perfect dish in the Swedish cold wintertime!

    I was wondering if you could give me some advise regarding some questions?

    – I have been mixing the ground sichuan peppers into the sauce, is there a particular reason to instead put it on top of the dish?

    – How many people is this recipe suitable for if using it “western-style” ie. using it as main dish w rice and a veggie side?

    Thanks!!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Christian. I’m happy to have readers in Sweden!
      I think you could use the Sichuan pepper in either place, or both. It’s probably more for looks when sprinkled on top, though it might be stronger too, since it’s not cooked. (Also easier to avoid for people who don’t like a lot of it.)
      I think this would serve four people along with another dish, unless you’re really big eaters.
      Thanks for writing!

  4. Marijke says:

    So, so glad I found this site when I saw it on the Saveur site (I hope you win). My favorite Chinese food is Mapo Doufu, but unfortunately whenever I ask for this dish here in the U.S. it just never meets up to what I had when I was in Wuhan with my daughter and her husband when they adopted a little girl in 2000. And so, I will be following your posts and going through all of your old ones and learn to make what makes me happy, Chinese food. My husband and I live and travel full time in a MotorHome and Chinese food is so conducive to making on an RV because it is quick and usually very easy. My only problem is storing all the different ingredients I need for making Chinese, Indonesian (where I grew up part time), Indian and Mexican dishes, but I do have a few of the essentials and will learn more from your posts what I need to get/change. Again, thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      I love to picture you making Chinese food in an RV. That’s impressive! I guess if you can’t find the ingredients, you can always drive to the next place and look there. I love it! I hope these recipes works for you. Thanks so much for writing. And voting!

  5. Stefan says:

    Thank you so much for this, excellent recipe! I had som trouble finding the jiang, but it was well worth it. Looking forward to trying more recipes from your site! 🙂

  6. David says:

    Great recipe…do we know where we can get the cookbook from the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine? Looked on amazon and no joy!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi David,

      As far as I know the cookbook is still out of print. It was never distributed outside China, but some readers have told me they’ve found a stray copy here or there on Chinese websites. Good luck!

  7. Spike says:

    Finally got around to this one, and only had ground pork in the fridge, but such a great depth of spice. Really hot, but so fulfilling on the palate. I’ll post a pic on your fb page.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks, Spike! Glad to hear it. And even though beef is traditional, I think many people make mapo doufu with pork.

  8. Jim Sweeney says:

    Spike,

    I make Taylor’s recipe with pork all the time and I find I like it better than with beef. For me, the trick is to not use too much. The pork flavor should be an accent note to the dish not the melody. Hers is by far the best recipe I have found for this amazing dish.

    PS – Try her water-boiled beef next if you haven’t already. It’s amazing!!! When I tried it, I was blown away by the depth of flavor!

  9. Niya says:

    Thanks so much for this wonderful recipe. As a sometimes-vegetarian and ma po addict, I adapted it by using minced mushrooms instead of beef, and it was absolutely heavenly! Thanks also for the recommendation in another post for Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp. It’s amazing! I’m addicted.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Niya,
      I love the idea of using minced mushrooms in place of ground meat. I sometimes use diced eggplant as a sub for ground pork in other dishes (like dan dan noodles), but have never tried it in mapo doufu. So glad it worked for you.
      Thanks for writing!

    • Christian says:

      HI Niya!

      As a vegan I also do a slight variation of that if you’re interested. I use dried shitakee that is softened up with boiling water and chopped up. A few of these are mixed with about half a block of hard tofu (about 100g) that i crumble into small bits with my hands. I add some dark soy sauce and some of the shitakee-water, as well as a small amount of whatever umami-tasting stock base i have laying around. Then i KILL IT in a hot wok or fryin pan with lots of neutral veg oil until the bits end up like brown, crunchy, salty little mini-tofu-granolas. They may look a bit too crunchy and wierd, but when they are added into something moist like a Mapo or even a Dan dan they soften up taste AMAZING. The texture is just right for a minced meat-substitute.

      PS. @Taylor: just MURDERED a batch of Mapo last week. My new vacuum packed Sichuan pepper had appox. 10 times more taste than my old jar, which i failed to account for….inedible 🙂

  10. John says:

    Okay, I’ve never made this version, always used Mrs. Chiang in the past, with ground pork. Now my son has asked me to make it for him and his significant other, who is allergic to both beef and pork. Would you recommend ground chicken or turkey as an alternative? Or should I just do Gong Bao Chicken and not bastardize the Mapo Doufu?

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi John,

      I have never tried ground chicken or turkey, but I think it would be fine. There is very little meat in the dish anyway. Also, several commenters have said they use minced mushrooms to good effect. Good luck!

  11. John says:

    Thanks much for the quick reply. I have in the past deviated from tradition and used more meat than called for … my kids are serious carnivores and it’s the only way to get them to even consider eating a dish with tofu.

  12. Martin Roth says:

    Hi from Australia. I have just cooked this for the first time with genuine Sichuan Pixian Douban and it made a subtle difference (previously I’d been using my Korean wife’s Korean chilli bean paste). A shopping expedition to a large Chinese supermarket revealed not only the bean paste but also a range of Lao Gan Ma oils and sauces. Though no Sichuan vinegar (we bought instead a Hong Kong black vinegar that claimed to be all-natural and without additives). Your Australian readers might be interested in the name of the importer of the bean paste and the Lao Gan Ma products. It is Lay Brothers, tel. (03) 9791-6399. I imagine that phoning them will get you the name of local shops that stock their range.

  13. Joshua Chopak says:

    Incredible recipe! Tastes just like the best restaurant versions I’ve ever had. I like adding a little extra sichuan peppercorn and chili though for some added mala kick.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks, Josh! This is not a particularly hot version, so it makes sense to up the heat to your own liking. So glad it worked out. And thanks very much for your business at The Mala Market!

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