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.
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 that people loved so much 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
RECIPE #1: Han Dynasty’s Mapo Tofu
At Mission Chinese, we talk about mapo all the time. We talk about all of the little, teensy things we’re going to tweak here or there. This dish is basically Danny Bowien’s pet; it’s really an obsession of his. He’s always like, How can we do it better? How can we do it better?
Our original mapo tofu recipe started with a sofrito. It had Thai chilies for heat, cubed pork shoulder, and all these sweet spices—cinnamon, anise, and clove—and was braised for four hours. Through the years, we’ve simplified things. We removed some of those sweet spices—you couldn’t really taste them anyway. Then we started messing around with a vegan mapo, which was made with dried shiitake mushrooms; we’d hydrate them in soy and then let that sit in the fridge for a week so that they’d get really nice and soft and super soy-saucy. For a week or two, we mixed in barely cooked pork belly that was still nice and bouncy. You would get cubes of tofu and then the cubes of what was basically fat, which I really liked.
Here at our new restaurant, we looked to simplify things even more. We realized that we only needed that long braise if we had pork shoulder in there, so we kicked it out. We decided that we were just going to do ground pork and that we’d cook it in rendered aged beef fat, which adds depth and funk.
At the time, Danny was like, Oh, this is the best, but he thinks every new thing is the best. So maybe by the time this is out, we’ll be doing a different one. —Angela Dimayuga
RECIPE #2: Mission Chinese Food’s Mapo Tofu
I’ve always thought of mapo tofu as the perfect Chinese food—it looks unhealthy, but it’s really not; it’s spicy, but there’s a lot of flavor to it; it’s made of tofu, but it’s not vegetarian. It’s just one of the greatest dishes and, with rice, it’s one of the greatest meals.
In 2006 mapo tofu was pretty much the only food I was eating. I’d pick it up from Grand Sichuan, which had just opened on St. Mark’s Place, and eat it at Ssäm Bar, which was just getting going at the time.
Joshua McFadden was in the kitchen then—he had been staging at Del Posto before joining up. If this were a music documentary about the creation of a hit song instead of a popular dish, he would have been the person who came up with the beat. He combined a Sichuan chili sauce with a mix of Italian ragu ingredients. I remember him struggling at the time; he wanted to contribute. And it was right there: I remember tasting it and being like, Holy shit, this guy just did a Chinese ragu.
And then everybody started to chime in. Tim Maslow was like, Oh, we need some texture, and then the fried shallots went on top. And then I was like, We should add the whipped tofu as a kind of dairy-like component. (We always had leftover whipped tofu around because no one was buying our burritos, which used it.) And then it dawned on me: Oh shit, this is mapo tofu, and it went on the menu. Without everybody’s parts in it, it never would have happened. —Dave Chang