The Queen of Mapo Doufu Recipes (Mapo Tofu)
Published Sep 27, 2014, Updated Feb 12, 2024
Chengdu Challenge #10: The Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine’s Mapo Doufu Recipe
Best tofu dish in the world? Mapo doufu, without a doubt.
You may be thinking that’s not saying much. But it is. In fact, forget that it features tofu. I’ll put this beefy, spicy, doubanjiang chili bean dish up against your favorite American beef-and-bean chili any day.
I’ve been making mapo doufu—“pock-marked mother’s bean curd”—for years. It was one of the first dishes I learned from our brilliant chef Qing Qing back when I organized cooking classes for travelers at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine.
But over the years, my version had somehow gone astray. It was still good, but it wasn’t great. It had evolved into something not quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on what that was. So I decided it was time to get back to basics, and relearn this classic from scratch. I could no longer turn to Qing Qing, as he’s gone on to bigger things as part of the team running the culinary institute’s hotel, but I could turn to my personal cookbook from Sichuan, which contains the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine’s own nominee for the definitive recipe.
And once again, The Cookbook did not let me down. This is the mapo doufu I remember from the best versions I’ve eaten in Chengdu. A version that—dare I say it—matches Chen’s Mapo Doufu, the chain of restaurants that traces its founding to the one and only “pock-marked Mother Chen,” who created the dish eons ago. Chen’s still serves a mean version at the original of its many Chengdu outposts.
Here’s how The Cookbook tells the story:
During the reign of Emperor Tongzhi of the Qing Dynasty, the wife of the owner of Chen Xing Sheng Restaurant invented a way to cook tofu, which featured distinct spicy flavor. To distinguish it from other braised tofu, people named the dish Mapo Tofu, which in Chinese means pock-faced granny on account of the fact that there were pocks on her face.
Characteristics of Classic Mapo Tofu
From The Cookbook’s recipe I realized the error of my ways: too much meat, not enough chili flakes and, most importantly, too little oil. Here is what real mapo doufu needs:
- A deep-red oil slick on top (see all photos here). That’s just the way it is and always has been in Sichuan. And the way it tastes best.
- A heaping helping of Pixian doubanjiang, or chili bean paste from Pixian (and nowhere else). It’s red, and it’s earthy-spicy, and it defines mapo doufu. The color of your mapo doufu will vary with the color of your doubanjiang, which can range from bright red to reddish brown, but this is a dish that begs for the heft and depth of flavor provided by premium 3-year-old doubanjiang.
- A small helping of fermented black soybeans (douchi). Used across China, these umami bombs are pretty easily found in Chinese markets or at The Mala Market.
- Bright-red Sichuan chili flakes, which bring both color and heat to the proceedings.
- Of course, tofu’s pretty important too. Please use an Asian brand like, in the U.S., Sincere Food’s Lotus brand or House Foods. And even though most people use firm tofu, I much prefer the soft type. I adore the fresh soybean flavor and cloud-like texture, and I don’t mind if it breaks apart just a little when it cooks.
- What mapo doufu doesn’t need is much meat. In almost every Sichuan dish that calls for minced meat, that meat will be pork. In mapo doufu, that meat is beef. But you don’t need much. The school’s recipe calls for only 2 ounces—1/8 pound or 60 grams. And that is plenty. The beef is only a (wonderful) garnish.
- Baby leeks or scallions. And lots of them.
- A dusting of huajiao, or ground, roasted Sichuan pepper, is, of course, the crowning glory.
Cooks outside Sichuan often add all sorts of other things to the recipe but, trust me, you don’t need them. The traditional recipe is simple and perfect, and why mess with perfection?
The Queen of Mapo Doufu Recipes (Mapo Tofu)
- 2 ounces ground beef approx. 60 grams
- 6 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
- 2 tablespoons Pixian doubanjiang (chili bean paste)
- 2 teaspoons douchi (fermented black beans), rinsed and roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan chili flakes (ground chilies)
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- 6 to 8 scallions, cut into 1-inch lengths
- 1 block Asian soft tofu (around 19 ounces), cut in 3/4-inch dice
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon freshly ground Sichuan pepper (to taste and according to potency of pepper; see note)
- Heat wok until hot. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and heat until just begins to smoke. Add beef and stir-fry, breaking it into a small mince, until it is cooked through and starting to brown. Remove the beef and hold.
- Clean the work, return it to heat until hot, then add the remaining 5 tablespoons oil. Heat briefly, then add the chili bean paste, fermented black beans and chili flakes. Let these sizzle until fragrant, being careful not to burn them. Add the chicken stock, soy sauce and scallions.
- Return the minced beef to the wok. Add the tofu cubes, and simmer for a couple minutes, gently tossing the tofu with the sauce. Add the cornstarch slurry a bit at a time until the dish thickens. You may not need it all.
- Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with ground Sichuan pepper.
Tried this recipe?