If you are like me, who grew up eating Cantonese food which is mild and subtle, you will be spellbound by this seemingly simple dish with the complex interplay of spices and flavor.
There are many restaurants try to approximate the original Mapo tofu without seriously following a set of criteria to cook the authentic Mapo tofu. The result is a stark contrast from the original dish.
So I have decided to find out how to cook the original way. The recipe below is the real deal that you can experience the kick-in-the-tongue sensation and the exact flavor of what you will get back in Szechuan, China.
Chefs set high standard to Mapo tofu
Experienced Szechuan chef will tell you that there is a set of criteria to cook the authentic mapo tofu. The tofu should deliver a numbing spiciness (麻) by the Szechuan peppercorn, spicy hot (辣) by the dry chili powder or chili oil. The tofu should be served piping hot (烫) and prepared with fresh ingredients (鲜). The tofu is soft and silky (嫩) and the sauce made with doubanjiang is aromatic (香) and lastly, the beef is minced into fine pieces and saute until fragrant (酥).
You can find further explanation of these seven characteristics of Mapo tofu at the tips and tricks section below.
But for now, watch the video and get the recipe below.
There is an interesting story behind this Mapo tofu. I found this story (image on the right) written in Chinese and loosely translated to English as below;
Chen Mapo Tofu was created in 1862 at Restaurant Chen Heng Seng 陈兴盛饭铺 in the northern suburb of Chengdu. The owner, Mrs. Chen of the restaurant, has pockmarks on her face. Since pockmark is pronounced as Ma and Po means old lady is Chinese, the tofu dish was named by the customers after her nickname as Mapo tofu.
In the era of the late Qing dynasty, most of her customers were laborers of low income and preferred to bring their tofu and ask Mrs. Chen to cook for them. Mrs. Chen's tofu was spectacular because it was prepared with fresh ingredients and served piping hot. The tofu was mixed with red hot chili oil, combine with the numbing flavor of Szechuan peppercorn, and spicy hot from the chili pepper. The beef is flaky and melts the mouth. The tofu is soft is silky and garnished with the lively color of the scallion.
Her tofu quickly become a phenomenon, and Mapo tofu had became the signature dish of Chengdu by the end of the Ching Dynasty.
Ever Since, it has become one of the most famous Szechuan dishes in the world. Her original restaurant is now called Chenmapo Doufu Old Store 陈麻婆豆腐老店 and still operating in Chengdu..
- 2 large square tofu (about 250 g each)
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) of vegetable oil
- 100g of minced beef
- 20g of chili bean paste (doubanjiang or 辣豆瓣酱)
- 20g of fermented black beans (douchi or 豆豉), mashed it if you like
- 1 teaspoon of finely diced garlic
- 1 tablespoon of finely diced ginger
- 1 tablespoons (7g) of chili powder
- 120ml of stock
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) of Shaoxing wine
- ½ teaspoon of light soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- Sufficient cornflour slurry to thicken the sauce
- 1 tablespoon of spring onion cut into short pieces
- 1 teaspoon of ground Sichuan peppercorn
- Cut the tofu to 2.5cm squares.
- Blanch the tofu in salted boiling water (1 liter of water with 10g of salt) over low heat for 2 minutes. Do not stir or move the tofu.
- Drained the water from the tofu with a colander. Set aside.
- Add the vegetable oil to the wok and stir-fry the beef until cooked.
- Add the chili bean paste, fermented black bean, ginger, garlic and chili powder. Stir-fry over medium heat until aromatic.
- Add the stock.
- Add the tofu into the wok carefully not to break them.
- And the light soy sauce and salt. Cook over low flame for 1 minute. Shake the wok to mix the sauce with the tofu. Do not stir-fry as the tofu can break easily.
- Add 1 tablespoon of cornflour slurry to the tofu over medium heat. Shake the wok to mix the slurry with the sauce. Once the corn flour is cooked and thicken the gravy slightly, add the second tablespoon of cornflour slurry.
- Continue adding the cornflour slurry until the gravy is thick enough to adhere to the surface of the tofu.
- Add the scallion and sprinkle the ground Sichuan peppercorn on top. Served.
The unique ingredients for making Mapo Tofu
The recipe for mapo tofu is so versatile that you can alter the amount of the seasonings with a large margin of tolerance. Many Chinese chefs who left Szechuan province of China have improvised the piquant original recipe to suit local tastes.
The following explanation will help you to understand some less common ingredients before you make any changes.
Which type of tofu is most suitable for making Mapo tofu?
You should look for the reasonably soft and silky tofu, but not the softest one that will break if you cut the tofu into pieces. These sort of tofu is commonly sold as individual pieces placed in plastic boxes and sealed with a transparent plastic film. Some of them are labeled as pressed tofu in English or carry the Chinese character 砖块豆腐. If you are in doubt, ask the vendor for his recommendation.
Is it alright to cook the tofu with the sauce without blanching it? Yes, but blanching the tofu is the trade secrets of chefs to remove the unwanted smell and firm up the tofu so that it will not easily break when you mix it with the meat sauce. I suggest you do not skip this seemingly unnecessary step.
Doubanjiang 豆瓣酱 is also known as fermented broad bean paste, Toban Djan, and chili bean paste. Due to the inconsistency of the translation, you can show the shopkeeper the three characters 豆瓣酱 to ensure that you purchase the right item.
Doubanjiang is the main seasonings for Szechuan cuisine, much like the popularity of soy sauce in Cantonese cuisine. Doubanjiang has an intense broad bean 蚕豆 taste and is spicy. It is also quite salty (you can taste it before using it to cook).
You may want to use more doubanjiang by reducing salt should you like a richer flavor.
Douchi (豆豉) is also known as fermented black beans. It is made with fermented soy bean and is quite salty. The combination of doubanjiang and douchi form the fundamental taste of Mapo tofu.
As of doubanjiang, douchi is also quite salty. The flavor is quite different from doubanjiang as it is fermented with soybean. Again, you can add more douchi if you like the flavor.
If you do not prefer to eat the whole piece of black bean, mashed them with the back of a fork before adding it to the wok.
Szechuan peppercorn gives a numbness feeling on the tongue. It is quite a dining experience if you haven't tried it. Szechuan peppercorn is different from other types of peppercorns, so there is no substitution for it.
You can buy the ground Szechuan peppercorn or choose to roast the whole Szechuan peppercorns and powderize it yourself. Heat up the peppercorns in a pan over low heat. The peppercorns will become dry and turn fragrant after a minute. Grind it to become powder by using a rolling pin or with the mortar and pestle.
Doubanjiang, Szechuan peppercorn, and chili oil are all uniquely Szechuanese, which chefs deploy all of them to create the ultimate tofu recipe.
Use beef, pork or ignore the meat
The original mapo tofu recipe contains minced beef. However, there are minced pork and vegetarian version as well. Explore the various options and follow your preference.
Three important things you need to know while cooking Mapo Tofu
While there is a wide margin for the quantity of ingredients for Mapo tofu, there are three rules that most chefs will not bend and follow strictly:
- The tofu can not withstand stirring and flipping as it can break easily. Therefore, do not stir-fry the tofu with the sauce. Instead of stir-frying, combine the tofu with the sauce by moving the pan in a circular motion. You can use a spatula and flip the tofu once if the tofu does not mix with the sauce completely.
- Cook the tofu with the meat sauce over low heat for about five minutes. The tofu will absorb the sauce into the porous structure which results in a very delicious tofu. You can add some water to the sauce if it is too dry to cook further.
- Thicken the sauce with cornflour slurry. Combine one tablespoon of cornflour with two tablespoons of cold water to make a slurry. Add the cornflour slurry to the tofu and sauce. The purpose of adding cornflour slurry is to thicken the sauce until it can cling on to the surface of the tofu. Add more cornflour slurry if the sauce is too watery. One the sauce is thick enough to adhere onto the tofu, stop adding more cornflour slurry as too much will turn it into an undesirable gooey paste.
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