SERIOUSLY, MAPO TOFU

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“Missing only one of these ingredients…?
THEN DON’T EVEN BOTHER!”

I probably talk about myself too much.

Yeah, people don’t like girls who talk about themselves too much, who can’t discuss Life of Pi without bringing up their ex-boyfriends.  I… can’t be that girl, right?  But oh look I have a blog, about my dinner, moreover it has dawned on me that very little space in this personal blog is even food-talk, but more like me-talk.  Where I should’ve dedicated an elaborate, mouth-watering and core-deep description about why you should eat this immediately, whatever this may be, I’d say “Oh look there’s a huge mole on my ass!”.

Oh my God… I am her.  But not today… not today.

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Today, this is above me.  This, requires undivided attention.  This, is a staple in practically every sichuan restaurant but somehow most people get wrong, very wrong, all the time.  A vastly false-imitated icon.  Somewhere in the world, you think you’re dressing like Kate Moss?  See, we can’t be that ignorant, can we?  So let’s just talk about this today.

This is, mapo tofu.

“Ma” means pockmarked.  “Po” means grandmother.  Of course there’s an uncredited historical origin that goes with it but whatever I don’t care.  There’s no shame if you don’t know what it is.  But you should however feel really bad, if you think you know what it is and have been gushing about, taking credits for… or worst, publishing its false recipe around town.  There’s been a couple recently and I’m not going to name names, which is more than what most can say if I put baking soda in wheat-juice and published it as beer.  Trust me, there’d be hate-mails.

So after years of making this dish at home, plus some additional, extensive research on it for the past couple weeks just so I don’t look like an idiot.  I’m here today, to set things straight.

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How meticulous should you be when talking about the seriousness of real mapo tofu?  “Oh dear ma-po-lice, I’m missing only one of these ingredients”?…  Well then, DON’T EVEN BOTHER!  Step aside.  You’re hurting me.  But if you want to be serious… respectful really.  Well then:

  1. Sichuan peppercorns, red and green.  If you don’t have/aren’t willing to buy either.  You can stop reading here.  If you only have red sichuan peppercorn which is likely if you reside anywhere outside China, fine… we’ll make do.
  2. Dou-ban-jiang (“dou-ban” means broad bean, and “jiang” means paste), a fermented red chili and broad bean paste.  Take a whiff and the intense, savoury, salivating chili-fragrance will hit your nostrils.  Its importance to sichuan cuisine is like ketchup to the Americans.  If you don’t have/aren’t willing to buy it.  Stop reading here.
  3. Real chili flakes.  Put that McCormick down you’re gonna give me a heart attack!  Sichuan chili flakes are sharp in aroma, almost slightly oily and fiercely red like a food-dye.  It should attack your nose first before your tongue.  Use the wrong chili flakes?  Then don’t blame the recipe!  The more commonly found Korean chili flakes can be an acceptable substitute.
  4. The right type of tofu.  Not the firm, borderline-crumbly type.  But not the disintegrating-ly soft, silken type either.  A good quality soft~medium-firmness tofu that’s slippery and custardy, but won’t “melt” into the sauce either, is my first choice.  Don’t like tofu?  What the fuck are you reading for?
  5. Last, an option finally.  The addition of cured and fermented black bean called dou-shi, remains somewhat, if only in my mind, an on-going dispute.  I’ve tried with or without just for the record and still, I’m on Team-No.  I think it muddles with the pure chili/peppery fragrance from the dou-ban paste and sichuan peppercorn.  But if you feel strongly about it, as strongly as you can humanly feel about anything else, then add 1 1/2 tsp finely chopped along with dou-ban paste and cut soy sauce to 1/2 tsp.  Sigh…

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Now, the process.  The process that comes second, if not parallel, to the ingredients.  On top of browning the beef and condiments properly, plus reducing and thickening the sauce the right way, most recipes say to introduce some kind of chili oil in the beginning when browning the meat, and that’s that.  Well I don’t know what they’re thinking.  You sprinkle all that extra gorgeous ground peppercorns on top of your finished dish and leave them to kiss… cool air?  No. NO.  NO!  We all know that spices need to be woken up by heat, a good spanking I like to say which is what we’re gonna give it.  The last 1/2 tsp of ground sichuan peppercorn that’s sprinkled on top, is going to meet its maker as a 1/4 cup of smoking hot, specially-made chili oil rains hell-storm from the sky above, releasing hidden aromas from the ground spice and minced garlic, scorching tofu-earth.  Caaahmo’n!  Does this not make your blood sizzle with excitement, too?  Well then, you can stop reading here.

Prepare for insane, tongue-swallowing rouge madness that calls for too many bowls of rice, which took some space away from this anti-Valentine’s-Day marriage pudding but we prevailed.  Just a typical week-night.  I mean pfffff~ com’n seriously now if you think about it, who needs candlelight dinner if you can have this, except like the next morning I found like, omg three acnes on my face that, really, came out of nowhere… damn it spicy food, but I think that if I just tilt my head like this way, then maybe they won’t show like, on my instagram?  But who cares about selfies which is like soooo immature and self-absorbing when there are serious things like wars and global warming and stuff which like..

totally makes me care….

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Makes:  Enough to serve 4

If you feel that the restaurant’s mapo tofu has special zing, chances are it’s MSG in chicken powder, which I have no problem with just for the record.

Sichuan peppercorns are paramount in mapo tofu, but even then most recipes are being cheap with it.  You need the real stuff and you need more.  I have for many time, mentioned the difference between red sichuan peppercorn (the typical kind that people refer to) and green sichuan peppercorn (the less common variety), so I may be repeating myself here.  In a nutshell, red sichuan peppercorn delivers strong fragrance with a milder numbing power, whereas green sichuan peppercorn… who knows what it tastes like as it will numb your face off completely.  It is very common in China that a combination of both is used in different dishes to reach the desired balance.  If you only have red sichuan peppercorn and feel absolutely unmotivated to buy the green type, you can just use red.  But the result won’t be the same.  If you need extra push to purchase it:  this dan-dan noodle, or this chili oil, or this cold sesame noodle may help.

The thing about writing recipes with Asian condiments is that different brands vary in taste and saltiness.  The link provide for douban paste (sichuan fermented chili bean paste) is exactly the same one I used which is very authentic and salty.  If you’re using a different brand, you may need to slightly adjust the amount accordingly.  I don’t have a link for the exact dark soy sauce I used, so you’ll have to rely a little bit on your taste-buds.  If the soy sauce lands on the “sweeter” side, reduce the sugar accordingly.

Preparing oil and spices:

  • Chili bean paste oil:
    • 1 cup (210 grams) of vegetable oil
    • 1 tbsp (25 grams) of douban paste (sichuan fermented chili bean paste)
    • 2 tbsp (14 grams) of chili flakes (preferably from sichuan or Korea)
  • Assorted sichuan peppercorn powder:

To make the chili bean paste oil:  Combine vegetable oil, douban/chili bean paste and chili flakes in a sauce pot.  Break apart the douban/chili bean paste as good as you can with the back of a spoon (it’ll clump up once the oil gets hot), and set over medium heat.  Let fry for about 3 ~ 4 min until the chili flakes turn dark red in color, then turn off the heat and let it sit until cooled down completely.  Strain the oil through a fine sieve into another container, and keep in the fridge until needed.

To make the assorted sichuan peppercorn powder:  Blend the red sichuan peppercorn, and green sichuan peppercorn together in a blender or spice-grinder (did you know about this trick?!!!) until finely ground.  Keep in an air-tight container until needed.

Mapo tofu ingredients:

  • 16.6 oz (470 grams) of silken~medium firm tofu, cut into small dices
  • 4 oz (115 grams) of fatty ground beef
    • 1 tsp of toasted sesame oil
    • 1 tsp of soy sauce
    • 1 tsp of cornstarch
  • 1/2 tbsp of vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 tbsp of grated ginger
  • 3 cloves of garlic, grated
  • 1 small red chili, diced
  • 2 tsp of douban paste (sichuan fermented chili bean paste)
  • 1 tsp of assorted sichuan peppercorn powder
  • 1 tbsp of Chinese shao-xing wine (or rice wine)
  • 1 tsp of dark soy sauce
  • 1/4 tsp of sugar
  • 1 1/2 cup of unsalted chicken stock
  • 1/2 tsp of chili flakes (from sichuan or Korea)
  • 1/4 tsp of rice vinegar
  • To finish:
    • 1 tbsp of cornstarch + 2 1/2 tbsp of water
    • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
    • 1/2 tsp of assorted sichuan peppercorn powder
    • 1/2 tsp of ground white pepper
    • 1/4 cup of chili bean paste oil

Dice tofu and set aside (Some people like to blanch the tofu in salted water for a couple min to remove the “soy bean stink”.  I don’t know… what “soy bean stink” is and if it was there, it never bothered me.  But if it bothers you, place the diced tofu in cold water with a pinch of salt.  Bring to a simmer and cook for 1 min.  Drain and set aside.)  Evenly mix ground beef, toasted sesame oil, soy sauce and cornstarch together, and set aside.

Heat up 1/2 tbsp of vegetable oil in a wok, or deep frying pan over medium-high heat.  Cook and break up the ground beef-mixture until browned, then add the grated ginger, grated garlic, diced red chili, douban paste and assorted sichuan pepper corn powder.  Stir and cook for a couple min until fragrant (it’s important to stir-fry the douban paste for a while to release its aroma), then add the shao-xing wine (or rice wine), dark soy sauce and sugar.  Cook for a min to let the alcohol evaporate, then add the chicken stock, chili flakes and the diced tofu.  Turn the heat down to medium-low, and let simmer until the liquid has reduced down almost completely and thickened slightly (stir gently in between without breaking up the tofu).  Last, add 1/4 tsp of rice vinegar and stir gently to incorporate.

Whisk together cornstarch and water, then drizzle 1/2 tbsp of the mixture slowly into the sauce.  Gently stir until thickened slightly, then drizzle another 1 tbsp more and gently stir again.  You won’t need all of the cornstarch-mixture, maybe just 1/2 tbsp more (the gradual thickening-method supposedly better help the sauce stick to the tofu).  Wait until the sauce has fully thickened before deciding if you want to add more.  Once the sauce has fully thickened, transfer to a serving dish.

Scatter the minced garlic in the center, and sprinkle 1/2 tsp of assorted sichuan peppercorn powder and 1/2 tsp of ground white pepper evenly over the tofu.  Heat up 1/4 cup of chili bean paste oil in a small pot until it starts to smoke up a little.  Pour the hot oil over the dish, and it should sizzle and release the fragrance from the peppercorn powder across the board.  Diced scallion is optional.

Serve with steamed rice and… maybe a glass of iced water.

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29 Comments

  • I swear I could of had this rant just last night when I at a friends place. We had Chicken tarragon but it was nothing without full fat cream. I can say the same for all recipe I have seen with firm tofu in mapo tofu or the egg round tofu. They are sins, but this looks sinfully good with that oil chilli layer and pockets of beef.

  • Jenny says:

    Sighhh there is nothing more gorgeous than a bowl of mapo tofu. I know that’s a pretty serious claim to make but can you blame me? Great recipe and beautiful photos!

  • cynthia says:

    YES girl. Mandy. You are the queen of my heart. You tell it like it is — this looks like absolute perfection. I only have one question: what’s your stance on shrimp broth in mapo tofu? My mother only makes mapo tofu when she’s made sauteed shrimp the day before, then she reserves the oil and broth from the dish and uses it in her tofu. And it is the absolute best mapo tofu I’ve ever had (though I’m willing to bet that yours gives hers a run for its money!)

    • Cynthia, funny you should ask because Jason’s favorite is “seafood mapo tofu” made with small shrimps! Of course it’s a twist from the classic and there’s nothing wrong with that (I bet your mom’s mapo is divine!). I just believe there’s a few basic ingredients mapo can’t do without… and there’s too many recipes out there that doesn’t do it right, you know.

  • Brianne says:

    This looks fantastic. You really freaked me out for a bit on where the shit I could find the ingredients for this, but the shop you linked to is outside Boston…like four hours from my house! Sure, they could ship it to me, but that store alone is worth a road trip. Maybe I won’t be making this any time soon, but knowing it’s possible is supremely satisfying. And I will be dreaming about that chili oil, though not the zits that may come after…

  • Amy says:

    I am a newbie with the lesser known Chinese ingredients and have been using Lee Kum Kee douban jiang that I find in local LA Chinese markets. Is this a mortal sin or is it similar to the real deal?

    • Amy, I have never used Lee Kum Kee’s brand for douban jiang (probably because it’s not the go-to brand for douban jiang), so I can’t completely veto it yet…. But Lee Kum Kee is a Cantonese brand and it tends to “cantonize” its product to suit their taste. Let’s just say again, that it’s not anyone’s go-to brand for douban jiang, but if it’s absolutely the ONLY choice you got, then so be it.

  • Sophie says:

    Oh gosh, I have had mapo tofu on the brain SO much recently — I got into bed, checked my email and shrieked a little when I saw your post! Perfect timing! Because I trust so much more your recipes than basically anyone elses :) I recently aquired the peppercorns and douban, just specifically for occasions such as these where a dish is not worth doing unless it’s right. So glad you’re here to set the record straight :) Dinner tonight!

  • Wendy D. says:

    Amazing!

  • So how do you feel about pork vs. beef? A girl’s got to know… So happy you posted this. I really don’t like imposters unless they are tall dark and sexy.

    • SOPHIE: oh I hope it turns out good!!! Pressure’s on…

      ABBE: Pork will certainly work, too. It’s traditionally made with beef but i’ve made it many times with pork as well. PS: George was lovely :)

      • Sophie says:

        This was so wonderful, Mandy! We each ate second helpings until we were about to burst. The next day my husband soaked a few green and red peppercorns in some gin and made the best martinis. They have such a floral, juniper-y aroma that was a perfect complement. But this dinner will happen again and again! Loved your version, thank you!

  • Ting says:

    This is absolutely dangerous! Thinking how many more bowls of rice I can dig in I am definitely not going to make this. However, it is so hard to resist such an appealing bowl of tofu with the color, fragrance and taste. I am happy to see you posted a recipe with the right ingredient and methods of cooking.

  • i think i came across a ma po tofu recipe on the Kitchn once and you left a comment about how it wasn’t the RIGHT recipe and i half expected you to jump into your computer and slap the person who posted the recipe. so then i searched your space to see if you posted the right recipe and you hadn’t and i wanted to email-badger you about it but didn’t want to get into fight about it when all i wanted was a real deal recipe. and there you have it, you’ve posted about it and i can go & attempt to make it. thank you.

  • Leslie says:

    Mmmmm looks so good! I’ve got a long and very specific grocery list now….

  • Vanessa Sherwood says:

    Ok, so I know you’ll say it’s not authentic, but have you ever had it without any meat? I’m a life long vegetarian but would love to make this…

  • robi says:

    just finished making the ragu………a little salty, but adding it to a béchamel so think it well be amazing..thanks for making me look so good!

  • weiden says:

    I feel silly to learn Chinese cooking with an American, cause I’m a Chinese and a pretty good cook myself. But your recipes are incredibly authentic and produce really good outcome. Love them. Thank you for sharing.

  • drew says:

    hello
    i’m a Buddhist vegetarian, what can i replace the beef with?

  • I seriously need to make this recipe (even though I can’t find a couple of the ingredients, yes I know you don’t recommend even trying then). It’s funny how I’ve never detected that weird tofu smell when I’ve cooked tofu…

  • Alex says:

    1 – burn your face off, how spicy is this dish?

    • ALEX: It depends on the brand of dou-ban paste you use and the types of chili flakes. The dou-ban paste is mainly for fragrance and flavour, and isn’t the most spicy thing in the world. I would say most heat comes from how much chili flakes you use. If you are not too heat-tolerant, you can omit the chili flake all together.

  • I found your recipe on foodgawker when I was seaching for authentic Mapo Tofu recipes, because I wanted to try a Nepalese version of Szechuan pepper (that I had been invited to savor) with this signature dish. How gorgeous is that! Since I’m vegetarian, I replaced the meat with shitake mushrooms, and the whole thing turned out one of the best Chinese dishes I have ever eaten. Thank you for this major inspiration.

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