Mápó dòufu, or mápó tòfu, is a popular Chinese dish from the Sichuan (Szechuan) province. It is a combination of tofu (bean curd) set in a spicy chili- and bean-based sauce, typically a thin, oily, and bright red suspension, and often cooked with fermented black beans and minced meat, usually pork or beef. Variations exist with other ingredients such as water chestnuts, onions, other vegetables, or Wood Ear Fungus.
Characteristics of Mápó Tòfu
True Mapo doufu is powerfully spicy with both conventional “heat” spiciness and the characteristic “mala” (numbing spiciness) flavour of Sichuan cuisine. The feel of the particular dish is often described by cooks using seven specific Chinese adjectives: 麻 (numbing), 辣 (spicy hot), 烫 (hot temperature), 鲜 (fresh), 嫩 (tender and soft), 香 (aromatic), and 酥 (flaky). These seven characteristics are considered to be the most defining of authentic Mapo doufu. The authentic form of the dish is increasingly easy to find outside China today, but usually only in Sichuanese restaurants that do not adapt the dish for non-Sichuanese tastes.
The most important and necessary ingredients in the dish that give it the distinctive flavour are chilli broad bean paste (salty bean paste) from Sichuan’s Pixian county (郫县豆瓣酱), fermented black beans, chilli oil, chilli flakes of the heaven-facing pepper (朝天辣椒), Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, spring onions, and rice wine. Supplementary ingredients include water or stock, sugar (depending on the saltiness of the bean paste brand used), and a starch (if it is desired to thicken the sauce).
Variations of Mápó Tofu
Mapo Doufu can also be found in restaurants in other Chinese provinces as well as Taiwan, Japan and Korea where the flavour is adapted to local tastes.
In Japan, where the dish is called mābō dōfu (マーボー豆腐), it was introduced by Chen Kenmin, known as the deity of Sichuan cuisine and who opened the first Sichuanese restaurant in Tokyo in the 1950s, and subsequently became one of the most well-known Sichuan dishes that he spread all over Japan, matched only by prawns in chilli sauce in how well it caught on. Instead of using only the salty and spicy bean paste, Chen also adopted sweet bean paste in the recipe to make the dish less spicy and less oily. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, similar variations can also been found. His son, Iron Chef Chen Kenichi, recreated the dish on a number of occasions on the show, including a vegetarian version using soybeans instead of ground meat and an even spicier version using Tokyo X pork. When he prepared it in Kitchen Stadium during the first battle with tofu itself as the theme ingredient, culinary critic and longtime Iron Chef judge Asako Kishi told him, “If you didn’t make Mapo Tofu, your father would be unhappy in heaven, because he is the one who introduced it here in Japan.” To this day, one Chen restaurant, simply named Chen Mapo Doufu, is dedicated to serving Mapo Doufu at a cheaper price than in the main restaurant but using the same recipe.
In the west, the dish is often adulterated, with its spiciness severely toned down to widen its appeal. This happens even in Chinese restaurants, commonly those not specialising in Sichuan cuisine. In American Chinese cuisine the dish is often made without meat to appeal to vegetarians, with very little spice, a thick sweet-and-sour sauce, and added vegetables, a stark contrast from the authentic. The vegetarian version is sometimes referred to as Mala doufu although this name is not always well-known.
- 1 tablespoon Chinese salted black beans
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons cooking wine, whisky, or dry sherry
- 3 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
- 2 cm knob of fresh ginger
- 1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
- 225 g pork mince or beef mince
- 500 g regular tofu (medium firmness)
- 1 leek or 3 spring onions
- 2 - 3 tablespoons oil for stir-frying, as needed
- 2 medium sized onions, peeled and cut into thin pieces
- 3 large cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
- salt, to taste
- 1 tablespoons chilli paste, or to taste (or very hot chillies to taste)
- 1 cup chicken broth or stock
- 1 red capsicum, cut into diamond shapes
- 1 tablespoon cornflour
- 2 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- freshly ground Szechuan pepper, to taste
- Rinse the salted black beans. Mix the marinade ingredients with a cutting hand mixer. (Note: if needed you can also chop the dry ingredients with a sharp knife or cleaver and combine with the soy sauce and cooking wine, whisky or dry sherry). Marinate the pork for 20 minutes (minimum, to achieve good absorption).
- Cut the tofu (bean curd) into 1 cm square cubes, and blanch for 2 - 3 minutes. Remove from the boiling water and drain.
- Chop the leek or spring onions into short 1 cm lengths.
- Heat a wok and add the oil. When the oil is ready, add the onions and garlic and stir-fry until they begin to brown. Add the marinated pork.
- Stir-fry the pork until it darkens. Add the salt and stir. Add the chilli paste or hot chillies. Stir-fry briefly, then add the stock and the bean curd.
- Turn down the heat and cook for 3 - 4 minutes. Add the capsicum and the leek or spring onions, and stir-fry for 2 - 3 minutes.
- While cooking, mix together the cornflour, water, and 2 tablespoons soy sauce. Add to the wok and stir gently. Serve with freshly ground Szechuan pepper and steamed rice.