This article was originally published for Curious Cuisiniere.
Life as a Mom can get really hectic really fast. And sometimes, I need to get dinner on the table quickly. My favourite way to get something tasty, hearty, and comforting is the classic Chinese Sichuan dish Mapo Tofu.
The first time I experienced this dish was when I was dining out with a friend whose aunt owned the restaurant that we were eating at that evening. She expertly ordered the dish “mapo tofu” and told me that I had to try it.
It came piping hot in a mini cauldron of sorts, and it was a luscious, red, saucy dish filled with tofu that was ladled onto our steamed white rice. Taking that first bite, I was in heaven. I couldn’t believe that I had never tried it before.
Well that wouldn’t be the last time I’d have mapo tofu. Ever since, it’s become a staple in our house. Quick to prepare in under 30 minutes, it’s a saucy, meaty dish that is full of umami flavour. Make a pot of steamed white rice to go with it and you’ve got a wholesome dinner to feed your entire family.
WHAT IS IN MAPO TOFU?
A bright red, savoury, spicy and saucy dish — as the name indicates, tofu is one of the main ingredients in the dish, along with fermented broad bean paste (dou ban jiang), fermented black beans (douchi), and ground meat, such as pork.
Traditionally, mapo tofu is very spicy due to the use of Sichuan peppercorns, which give it a numbing, aromatic heat. Its name “ma po tofu” literally translates to “pockmarked grandma beancurd.”
VARIATIONS OF MAPO TOFU
Mapo tofu is found in restaurants outside of Sichuan, and even in places like Korea and Japan. Despite it’s bright red colour, mapo tofu found in non-Sichuan restaurants is not very spicy, as it’s been toned down to suit local tastes, especially in the west.
For a vegetarian spin on mapo tofu, shiitake mushrooms are usually added to replace the ground meat. Other alternatives include using wood ear fungus or water chestnuts instead.
HOW TO PREPARE MAPO TOFU
Mapo tofu is in reality a simple, comforting, peasant dish. I almost think of it as a tofu stew of sorts. As long as you’ve got the base ingredients of tofu and ground meat, it’s really simple to whip up as you’re just mixing the sauce to go with the tofu.
Tofu, which is also known as bean curd, is the star of this dish. It’s made from soybeans that have been coagulated with a coagulating agent, such as calcium chloride. There are different varieties of tofu you can find ranging from: silken to extra firm. These indicate the tofu’s texture. Silken or soft, as you can imagine, is a very smooth, soft, high-moisture tofu that would not be suitable for this dish as it would disintegrate into pieces easily. I would choose a tofu that is firm to medium-firm.
Dou ban jiang is chili bean paste, also known as fermented broad bean paste. This is the ingredient that gives mapo tofu its base spiciness. It’s a thick, red paste that is spicy, and salty, made of broad beans, soybeans, and spices. You can find dou ban jiang in specialty Asian grocery stores, usually by the chili oil section.
Douchi is fermented black beans, also known as salty black beans, which are black soybeans fermented with salt. It has a deep, salty taste, and is usually made into a savoury black bean paste for flavouring foods such as pork spare ribs and fish. Douchi is found in packaged form as dry, salted black beans, or more commonly as a black bean paste in a jar in your local Asian grocery store. If you can’t find douchi, you can omit it.
Mapo tofu is delicious, flavourful, and great for long cold winters when you don’t want to slave in the kitchen for too long. If you end up with leftovers, they will taste even better the next day. The tofu will have a chance to absorb the flavours from the sauce and make it that much more tastier.
MY OTHER SICHUAN RECIPES
Try out this warm, comforting Sichuan Chinese dish that will be sure to be a staple in your dinner routine. Let me know if you make this recipe — tag me on Instagram @siftandsimmer or leave me a comment below.
- 3 Tbsp dou ban jiang red fermented broad bean paste
- 1 Tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 Tbsp douchi salted black bean
- 1 Tbsp cornstarch
- 1 ½ C water or chicken broth divided
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 150 g lean ground pork
- 1 large white onion diced
- 1 package medium firm tofu cut into cubes
- 1 tsp chili oil optional, if you like more spice, add more, if not, omit
- ¼ tsp ground Sichuan peppercorn optional
- chopped green onions for garnish
- In a small bowl, mix together the dou ban jiang (red broad bean paste), sugar, and douchi (salted black bean). Set aside.
- In another small bowl, mix together 1 T cornstarch and ½ C water or chicken broth. Mix until the cornstarch is dissolved.
- Heat up a large wok over high heat. Add in 1 T oil. Add in the ground pork and using a spatula, break it up into small pieces; fry for about 2 minutes. Add in the diced onion and fry with the pork until fragrant, about another 3-4 minutes.
- Next, add in the cubed tofu to the pork mixture and stir gently to mix everything together. Add in the remaining 1 C of water/chicken broth, dou ban jiang sauce mixture and stir to coat the pork and tofu. Bring it up to a boil and then add in the cornstarch slurry. The sauce will thicken up and coat all of the pork, tofu and onion.
- Add in chili oil and ground Sichuan peppercorn if you wish. When the mapo tofu comes to a simmer, remove from heat and garnish with chopped green onions.
- Serve hot over steamed rice.