Friday, February 22, 2008

Mapo Tofu

Ma Po Tofu

This picture is making me salivate as I write this at 1 in the morning. I can still remember how the sauce lingered on my lips, making them feel all warm and tingly. Authentic Sichuan cuisine is not for the faint of heart. The food from the province is damn spicy -- face reddening, sweat inducing, fan-yourself-silly spicy. And not only is it spicy, it numbs your mouth too! The famous ma la, or numb and spicy, sensation comes from the copious use of chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. Mapo tofu is one of the best known dishes from the province and has a colorful, slightly controversial, history behind it. The problem with this dish is that its true flavors are drastically muted in many restaurants. Sometimes it looks deceptively red but is not spicy at all! I suspect ketchup... Bah! Ketchup shouldn't be anywhere near this dish. And most of the time, it's missing that critical numbing effect. Up until 2005 the Sichuan peppercorn was banned from the States so not only was it incredibly hard to get the peppercorns *ahem legally* but many chefs chose to leave them out fearing the ma la would be too foreign. Luckily it's getting easier to find restaurants serving authentic Sichuan food but with the right ingredients, this dish is really easy to make at home.

The key ingredients are:
Chili bean paste (Dou Ban Jiang)
- This is the most important ingredient. It's a spicy sauce made from chilies and fermented beans. Broad bean chili paste is best but soybean chili paste is okay too. The brand I use is Lee Kum Kee.
Sichuan peppercorns

Optional ingredients:
Fermented black beans
- You can supplement the dish with some additional fermented black beans but it's okay if you can't find them.
Dried chilies
For even more heat if your chili bean paste isn't spicy enough

Mapo Tofu/ Mapo Doufu
1 block soft but not silken tofu, cut into 1 inch cubes
4 oz ground beef (85% or 90% lean) or pork
3 Tbsp chili bean paste
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and ground or crushed (more or less depending on your tastes)
Dried whole chilis (optional, how much is up to you)
1 Tbsp fermented black beans (optional), rinsed
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp rice wine
3 slices of ginger
4 green onions, sliced in half lengthwise then cut into 3 inch sections separating the white part from the green part (you add them at different times, reserve some of the green parts to garnish on top)
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp brown sugar
1/4 C chicken stock
1 Tbsp oil
1 Tbsp cornstarch mixed with 2 Tbsp water
Salt to taste

If you are using ground beef, brown it first, then drain it of the rendered fat because otherwise the dish will be a little too greasy. Heat 2 tsp of vegetable oil in a wok or skillet over medium high heat. Add the ground beef and cook until the beef is browned and the fat has rendered. Transfer the beef to a sieve to drain the fat and set aside. If you're using ground pork, no need to brown it first.

In the now cleared wok or skillet, heat 1 Tbsp of vegetable oil over medium high heat. Add the ginger slices, white part of the green onion, and ground Sichuan peppercorns and cook until fragrant about 30 seconds to a minute. Add the ground beef that you cooked earlier (or the raw ground pork if you're using that), the chili bean paste, garlic, fermented black beans (if using), soy sauce, rice wine, white pepper, and sugar, and cook for another minute or two. Then add the tofu, green part of the green onions, chicken stock and simmer for about 15 minutes, stir occasionally and carefully so you don't break up the delicate tofu. Meanwhile mix the cornstarch with some water in a small bowl and set aside. After simmering, add the cornstarch slurry and bring up to a simmer again and cook until thickened.

Garnish with chopped green onions and serve with white rice.


Anonymous said...

I am really enjoying your blog - your mapo tofu looks so delish!

I would like to make it, but I can't figure out what type of chili paste and what type of fermented beans.... would you be able to post a pic of the actual containers? (Do you have pictures of them elsewhere on your site?)

Please keep cooking and posting.

Amy said...

Thank you!
The chili bean paste is the jar on the right hand side in this photo:
Fermented black beans are fermented broad beans or soybeans. I just used them up so I'll have to pick them up next time I go to the Asian grocery store, but I will take a pic asap. If you can't find them, you can omit the extra beans, as they are just to supplement the chili bean sauce (which has the same kind of beans, with chilis and chili oil).

Amy said...

here is the link to the blog entry with the photo

Kitt said...

Yum! That looks fabulous.

When I lived in China in the late '80s and early '90s I offered to bring my dad some Sichuan peppercorns and pepper mix (la jiao) from Chengdu, and he said no! Why? "Because when I run out I won't be able to get it again and then I'll be sad."

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

This is the very dish that first sent me to search for Szechuan peppercorns -- and it is still my very favorite non-noodle Asian recipe. I'm bookmarking!

Wandering Chopsticks said...

Yum! I actually use firm tofu b/c all the stirring in the pot breaks up the tofu too much for me. I'm telling ya, if you come to SoCal, you'll find the Chinese restaurants down here don't water anything down.

Gretchen Noelle said...

I am not a huge tofu fan, but I must say this looks delicious. Great flavor combination!

pastry studio said...

This is one of my very favorite dishes and you're absolutely right - the photo is gorgeously mouth-watering! Can't wait to try this recipe. I actually do have the peppercorns. Thank you for the inspiration.

Anonymous said...

Amy, I love this dish and what a great photo! I have saved this recipe to try it out.

Anonymous said...

i just ate dinner, but that picture makes me hungry. i'm not a tofu person, but i would definitely try it with ground beef or pork.

the whole "numbing" thing both intrigues and scares me!

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Hi Amy,

Why aren't you sleeping at 1 am? Course if you have to be up, you might as well be salivating over mapo tofu. I am and it's only 5:25 am right now. When you get a minute, please drop by my blog to pick up a well-deserved award. :)

Cookie baker Lynn said...

This sounds amazing. I just got some Szechuan Peppercorns, so I'll have to give this a try.

Susan @ SGCC said...

Wow! I don't even know what it tastes like and I'm salivating from the picture! It looks great! We really like spicy foods, but I don't know if we've ever had the authentic stuff.

By the way, I hope you don't mind, but I've tagged you for a meme.

David T. Macknet said...

It sounds wonderful - and thanks for mentioning that there's such a thing as "broad bean chili paste!"

test it comm said...

Looks great!! Mapo Tofu is one of my favorite dishes.

Renee said...

But why was the peppercorn banned? I'm so curious now. This sounds really good, although I'm always a bit nervous about spicy food!

Amy said...

lol that sounds like my dad!

Hehe my first love are noodle dishes too. :)

Hoo that sounds good. I'm visiting Steven's little sis in SoCal soon I think. You'll have to tell me the best places to eat. :)

I bet this dish will change your mind. It's one that I recommend to people who don't like tofu. hehe

Pastry studio,
Let me know how you like it!

Tell me how you like it. :)

This is probably my favorite tofu recipe of all time because it shows that tofu can be super delicious and doesn't have to be bland or boring. The numbing thing is a little weird at first. :P

I'm such a night owl! You sound like an early bird, I'm never awake at 5:25! Thanks so much for the award, you made my day!

It's one of the best recipes for Sichuan peppercorns. :)

I will do the meme as soon as I think up some interesting stuff about myself. :) Thanks for the tag!

Broad bean paste is a little difficult to find but it tastes better.


The peppercorns potentially harbor a citrus canker that would be very damaging to US citrus crops but now the peppercorns are heated to kill the canker bacteria.

Anonymous said...

Thank you again for giving me more info. I did manage to find the broad bean chili sauce AND the salted black beans. So I am going to try your recipe for Mapo Tofu asap.

Thank you for your beautiful blog. I enjoy it so much.

Harlan said...

Just made this recipe, and it was probably the best ma-po tofu I've had! Very spicy, however, even using a bit less chile paste than specified, and no dried chiles. Next time I'll cut the chile paste in half, but I might add a dried chile or two for that specific flavor. Also, there wasn't much ma (numbing) flavor, so I'd suggest increasing the Szechuan peppercorns.


Unknown said...

why do you add the cornstarch?

Amy said...

John, the cornstarch helps thicken the sauce.

Linda said...

Love this post! Mapo tofu has got to be one of my favourite tofu dishes ever! Your photos are awesome - they really are very appetizing!

(FYI: I added a link to this post on a blog entry -


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