The Queen of Mapo Doufu Recipes (Mapo Tofu)

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The Mala Market's Mapo Doufu

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.

mapo doufu at a restaurant in chengdu
Mapo doufu, along with other Sichuan classics, at a famous restaurant in Chengdu

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.

tofu block sliced in cubes
Chef Qing Qing shows us how to cut the doufu
cooking mapo doufu at the sichuan culinary institute
Chef makes sure I don’t slice my hand along with the wobbly bean curd
mapo doufu in white dish
My end result with Chef’s guidance

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.

Chen's mapo doufu in Chengdu
Mapo tofu as served at Chen’s Mapo Doufu in Chengdu, the originator of the dish; notice the abundant oil and the small amount of beef mince garnish

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 Mala Market's Mapo Doufu

The Queen of Mapo Doufu Recipes (Mapo Tofu)

By: Taylor Holliday | The Mala Market
Adapted from Sichuan (China) Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, published in China in 2010 by the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and the Sichuan Gourmet Association.

Ingredients 

  • 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)

Instructions 

  • 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.

Notes

Ground Sichuan pepper: Sort Sichuan peppercorns and discard any black seeds or twigs. Toast in a dry skillet or toaster oven until pods start to smell very fragrant, but do not brown them. Let peppercorns cool, then grind in a spice grinder or in a mortar & pestle to your desired coarseness. Sift out any yellow husks that don’t break down. Sichuan pepper powder will retain its potent flavor and numbing punch for only a few weeks.

Tried this recipe?

About Taylor Holliday

The Mala Market all began when Taylor, a former journalist, created this blog as a place to document her adventures learning to cook Sichuan food for Fongchong, her recently adopted 11-year-old daughter. They discovered through the years that the secret to making food that tastes like it would in China is using the same ingredients that are used in China. The mother-daughter team eventually began visiting Sichuan’s factories and farms together and, in 2016, opened The Mala Market, America’s source for Sichuan heritage brands and Chinese pantry essentials.

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53 Comments

  1. Thanks much for the quick reply. I have in the past deviated from tradition and used more meat than called for … my kids are serious carnivores and it’s the only way to get them to even consider eating a dish with tofu.

  2. Hi from Australia. I have just cooked this for the first time with genuine Sichuan Pixian Douban and it made a subtle difference (previously I’d been using my Korean wife’s Korean chilli bean paste). A shopping expedition to a large Chinese supermarket revealed not only the bean paste but also a range of Lao Gan Ma oils and sauces. Though no Sichuan vinegar (we bought instead a Hong Kong black vinegar that claimed to be all-natural and without additives). Your Australian readers might be interested in the name of the importer of the bean paste and the Lao Gan Ma products. It is Lay Brothers, tel. (03) 9791-6399. I imagine that phoning them will get you the name of local shops that stock their range.

  3. Incredible recipe! Tastes just like the best restaurant versions I’ve ever had. I like adding a little extra sichuan peppercorn and chili though for some added mala kick.

    1. Thanks, Josh! This is not a particularly hot version, so it makes sense to up the heat to your own liking. So glad it worked out. And thanks very much for your business at The Mala Market!

  4. Had a tiny little bit of leg of lamb laying around today and thought “why not? “. Diagnosis: delicious.

  5. I noticed the Pixian chili bean paste (douban jiang) listed in the shop contains wheat. I wanted to make this for some friends, but one of them has a gluten allergy. Are there any douban jiang on the market without wheat? I have a generic (Union Foods) broad bean paste that doesn’t contain wheat, so I’ll have to settle for that today. I know it won’t be as authentic. Suggestions welcome.

    1. Hi Cheryl,
      Most Chinese sauces do contain wheat, so that’s a challenge. I’m surprised you found a douban that doesn’t have any. Other than that, some people in Sichuan just ferment chilies and salt without the beans or wheat and call it douban. So you could look for a fermented, chunky chili sauce. But you’re right that it will taste quite different. Wish I could be more helpful. Perhaps some other readers will suggest a workaround.

      1. Thanks Taylor for the info. I don’t think the sauce I found could really be called a douban as it looks like it’s just chiles, broad beans, salt, vinegar, sesame oil. But better than nothing. This was the first tofu dish I’ve ever liked, and a couple of the folks commented similarly. It’s won me over to Sichuan foods. This coming weekend I’ll get to make the mapo tofu with real douban and will test ourselves with the Chongqing chicken (“American-ized” version).

        There are several recipes for douban on the web that look good, and I wonder if rice flour would work as well as wheat flour? The latter seems only used in initially starting the ferment.

        1. Interesting question about the rice. As far as I know, no douban maker in Pixian is going gluten-free. China just doesn’t have the epidemic of gluten intolerance that the U.S. has.

          Are you thinking of making your own douban?! That’s not something I’ve tackled, but I know of a chef who does so in Australia. I wonder if the flour is necessary at all in a homemade douban….Let me know if you experiment!

  6. Would anyone know how welll this freezes? I know tofu gets funny when frozen, so I wouldn’t add it until the sauce was thawed again.

    1. Hi Cindy, you should have no trouble freezing the rest of the sauce until you’re ready to serve with the fresh tofu! Thanks for reading. I know this reply is late, but hopefully it helps another reader!

  7. I wish you guys would sell this cookbook: Sichuan (China) Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, published in China in 2010 by the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and the Sichuan Gourmet Association. The only place I could find that was selling it was in Hong Kong, and didn’t take Paypal.

  8. This is an excellent recipe! I would also add as others have that it is a good idea to gently simmer the tofu cubes prior to adding to the wok. I simmer the tofu in the stock, which eventually goes in the wok as well.

    1. Thank you, John! Good idea about simmering the tofu in the stock. I don’t bother because I don’t mind if the tofu breaks up a little bit. The brand I use doesn’t really need the pre-cook to have a consistency we like.

  9. recipe is pretty good, but I bought Mala Markets chili oil and the salt content per serving is more than one person should eat in a while day! And this recipe calls for two servings!! yikes.

    1. Hi Ian, thanks for reading and supporting The Mala Market!

      You’re absolutely right, the Pixian doubanjiang chili bean paste is known for being quite salty. It’s how it stays preserved, and it’s always meant to be used as a concentrated add-in to other dishes, never on its own. Kind of like Better Than Bouillon. You can decrease the doubanjiang called for in this recipe and add a dose of chili oil to get back some heat, since the chili oil we carry has far less salt than doubanjiang. Or better yet, make your own chili oil with no salt at all!

      To help with the saltiness, I never make mapo doufu on its own, either. Chinese dishes stand out best when served family-style with a balance of simple veggies and flavorful forwards like mapo doufu, and between the giant portion sizes I still make when cooking for myself, I always end up with leftovers. I definitely wouldn’t recommend eating this whole dish by itself in one day, that’s a lot of salt indeed! Glad you liked the recipe and thanks for leaving us a comment!

  10. Just discovered your page and market!
    Please do advise which Sichuan peppercorns are best suited for each recipe? Or are all 3 varieties almost similar and either can be used in recipes?

    1. Hi Anjali,
      Unless specified, Sichuan pepper usually refers to one of the red varieties—whichever one you prefer. But you can certainly use green instead in most recipes for a somewhat different taste.