There are a couple versions of the origin story of mapo tofu—but I’m going to tell you the one I like best. Let me take you back to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in the late 1800s. There’s this old lady, a tofu maker. She makes tofu every morning and also cooks some tofu dishes for local people or other cooks. She has smallpox scars all over her face, so people call her Ma Po—ma means pockmarks, and po means grandmother.
So there’s a gentleman who comes in to get some food. He’s just come from the market, and he has a bag of minced beef with him. He’s sitting there in Ma Po’s restaurant, and he looks out across the street and sees a very nice restaurant with a very pretty girl. Ma Po, as you know, is not the prettiest lady, and the pretty girl calls out to him to come to her restaurant. He leaves Ma Po’s place and heads across the street.
A few minutes later a table of customers comes in, and they say that they want a tofu dish with beef. Ma Po doesn’t have any beef but the gentleman who left forgot his bag of minced beef, so she’s like, I’m gonna use this motherfuckin’ beef. She makes this dish and she brings it out and the group of men love it. They go crazy over it.
A lot of people think the ma in this dish’s name refers to the numbing sensation you get from a Sichuan peppercorn, which is also called ma in Chinese. But to me it’s all about a person who creates a dish and people loved it so much that they named it after her. It became the most famous tofu dish that ever came out of China. There’s no tofu dish that is as famous as this. When you talk about Sichuan cuisine, you talk about this dish.
The cooks here at Han Dynasty are very stubborn. This is the traditional recipe; they’re not going to break from tradition and make something different. They’ve been cooking for thirty, forty years, and they won’t change the way they’ve done it. They think it’s impossible to make this dish better. —Han Chiang
- 3 T cornstarch
- 4 C chicken stock
- 1 lb soft tofu, cut into 1" cubes
- 1/2 C vegetable oil
- 3 T minced garlic
- 3 T minced ginger
- 1/3 C doubanjiang
- 1 T hoisin sauce
- 1/2 C minced beef or pork, about 4 oz
- 1 leek, dark-green parts discarded, whites and light greens split lengthwise, cut at an angle into 1" pieces, and rinsed (about 1 C)
- 1 T fermented black bean paste
- 1 T gochugaru
- 1/4 C chili oil
- 1 T ground Sichuan pepper
- + cooked rice, for serving
Make a cornstarch slurry: whisk the cornstarch with 3 tablespoons cold water in a small bowl. Set aside.
Have all of your ingredients prepped and ready at the stove; you’re going to be moving fast. In a medium saucepan, bring the stock to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Add the tofu cubes, return to a simmer, and cook for 3 minutes; you’re looking to set their shape. A cube of tofu pressed gently with your finger should not crack or fall apart. Cook for another minute or two as the timing will depend on the freshness and brand of tofu you are using. Drain and set aside, reserving 1 cup of stock.
Meanwhile, get a wok ripping hot. Add the vegetable oil and as soon as it’s smoking, add the garlic and ginger. Stir-fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the doubanjiang, and stir-fry for another 10 seconds. Add the hoisin sauce, stir, then add the tofu cubes along with the reserved chicken stock. Mix carefully, pushing the mixture away from you gently with a spatula or wooden spoon rather than stirring in order to keep the tofu cubes as intact as possible. Bring to a simmer. Break up the minced beef or pork with your hands and scatter small pieces over the simmering liquid. Fold in the minced meat and the leeks, return to a simmer, then add the black bean paste, gochugaru, and chili oil, mixing after each addition. Cook for 30 seconds or until the meat is cooked through and the leeks are slightly softened.
Give the cornstarch slurry a stir and add it to the pan. Mix, bring to a simmer, and offload into a serving dish. Garnish with ground Sichuan pepper. Serve with rice.