Mapo dofu is one of my favourite Chinese dishes, but if you’re not familiar with authentic Chinese cooking, it might come as a bit of a surprise. Most of the Chinese food we encounter here in the west comes to us by way of the takeaway and local restaurant, where families from the Cantonese region cook their specialities – subtle stir fries, noodles and light soups. However, as you can probably imagine, in a country with millions upon millions of inhabitants, the cuisine actually varies enormously, and this dish is fairly indicative of its origins in the Sichuan province. Sichuan dishes are popular on takeaway menus, that’s true – but although real Sichuan dishes are as spicy as their western namesakes, translated to our soft palettes via the Cantonese migrants, that’s pretty much where the comparison ends.
I can’t say I’m an expert, but I have learned a lot about Sichuan cuisine thanks to Fuchsia Dunlop (namely Sichuan Cooking and Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper). One of the recipes I’ve adopted as a staple is mapo dofu. I’ve tweaked it quite a lot from the original, which incorporates a great deal of oil (which is delicious but sadly far too calorific for me!) so I decided to share the recipe here.
Mapo dofu has a great, colourful history, which starts with the name itself: ‘ma’ meaning ‘pockmarked’ and ‘po’ meaning ‘old lady’. ‘Dofu’ is another translation for tofu, so the recipe’s name translates to mean ‘pockmarked old lady’s tofu’. Legend has it that this lady, Pockmarked Old Ma, used to make this incredibly spicy dish in her restaurant – and it was so hot that it would make the diners sweat! My version is certainly not that spicy, but the inclusion of Sichuan pepper certainly gives it an interesting feeling in your mouth – this spice is known for its numbing and cooling effect, so if you’ve never tried it before, go cautiously!
This recipe serves two people.
- Approx 1 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 block firm tofu (approx 340g)
- 2 tbsp oil
- 200g minced beef or pork
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 tbsp chilli bean paste
- 1 tbsp fermented black beans
- 250ml chicken stock
- 1 1/2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tbsp cornflour dissolved in 2 tbsp water
- Bunch spring onions
- White rice to serve
First of all, prepare the Sichuan peppercorns by roasting them in a pan until fragrant, then grinding in a pestle and mortar, You want to save 1/2 tsp of this powder to sprinkle on the top later. You can skip this and buy ready ground Sichuan pepper if you can get it, but it won’t be as fresh. However, the peppercorns themselves will stay fresh for a long time, and can toasted and ground to order – I always have some in a tin on my fridge!
Slice the tofu into 1/2 inch squares and poach in simmering water gently to give it a silky texture.
Wash and drain your fermented black beans.
Heat the oil in a wok, add the beef or pork and garlic, and stir fry, breaking it up, until the meat has coloured. Now add the chilli bean paste and stir fry for about 30 secs. Add the fermented beans and stir fry for a few more seconds.
Pour in your stock, then add the drained tofu gently so as not to break it up. Add the soy sauce and sugar, then taste for seasonings to see if anything else is needed.
Simmer for 5 mins, and slice the spring onions on a steep diagonal whilst it’s cooking.
Add the cornflour mixture a bit at a time, mixing gently until the sauce thickens to the tofu. You might not need all the mixture to do this.
Put your rice into the bottom of each bowl, the pour the mapo dofu recipe over the top. Sprinkle over the Sichuan pepper and spring onions, and enjoy!