Defining mapo tofu is like playing a maddening game of twenty questions: Is it plant-based? Yes. Is it vegetarian? Sometimes. Does it have pork? Probably. Is it spicy? Usually. Easy to make? It can be! The mapo tofu galaxy is one of infinite possibilities, spiraling outward from an originally spicy, oily, numbing, meaty sauce/stew of Sichuan origin.
For this installment of Three Dishes, we went to Philadelphia to cook with Han Dynasty’s Han Chiang, who clued us in to mapo tofu’s proverb-like origin story and showed us a traditional take on the dish, combining tofu, oil, spices, and beef in just three minutes on a hot wok. At New York City’s outpost of Mission Chinese Food, executive chef Angela Dimayuga incorporated aged beef fat, mushroom powder, fish sauce, Thai chilies, and white wine into her recipe for the same dish. And at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Matthew Rudofker and David Chang made a dish of rice cakes and sausage that looked strangely Italian but tasted unmistakably like mapo tofu.
So in the end, what is mapo tofu? We have three very good answers, right here.
A traditional recipe.
A contemporary take on the Sichuan classic.
A recipe crowd-sourced from the Momofuku kitchen.