Chinese cooking is an underrated home-cooking option outside of its original home, and it’s not difficult for this Western-educated home cook to see why. With its different sensibilities about what kinds of cookware and tools are critical for a well-stocked kitchen, its reliance on ingredients that are likely unfamiliar to people used to food with other origins, and its characteristic sensibility about food pairings that can make it difficult to combine with food from other traditions, Chinese cooking often feels like a wholly separate discipline from other culinary affairs. It isn’t—all cooking is connected—but the feeling is hard to shake when every recipe calls for a wok and mentions spices that are rare in non-Chinese spice cabinets. Chinese-American cooking is what it is in part because of how Chinese foodways adapted to both American palates and American ingredients, creating a fusion cuisine as beautiful as any of its influences. It only takes a little ingenuity to make classic Chinese dishes work with the tools this Puerto Rican home cook has at her disposal in a kitchen that really doesn’t need one more pot or pan in it, and today’s success is the much-loved Sichuanese classic called mapo tofu.
Often translated as “pockmarked grandmother’s bean curd,” this unappetizing name hides culinary splendor. Mapo tofu is perhaps the preeminent example of the Chinese málà (“numbing spicy”) flavor profile. This spice combination mixes red chili pepper (originally native to the Americas) with the dried berries of the Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum bungeanum), an unrelated plant native to central China. Where the red chili peppers provide the fiery heat of capsaicin, Sichuan pepper’s biochemical claim to fame is hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, which causes a mild numbing sensation that synergizes beautifully with the capsaicin’s heat. This flavor profile is a sensory seeker’s dream.
Conveniently for the Western chef, much of the flavor of mapo tofu is contained within one of its key ingredients and a cornerstone of Sichuan cooking, doubanjiang chili bean paste. This is a paste made of fermented broad beans (fava beans to Americans), chili peppers, oil, and a blend of spices that varies from place to place and manufacturer to manufacturer. This paste can be made at home by a determined chef with access to some ingredients that might be hard to find outside of the best-stocked Chinatown markets, but can also be purchased from grocery stores that sell prepared Chinese foods, which is how I get mine. When looking for doubanjiang, make sure it is the spicy kind (marked with the characters 豆瓣酱) rather than non-spicy varieties of bean paste meant for other dishes. Sichuan peppercorns can be purchased from Chinese markets in most major cities or mail-ordered without much fuss as well; for best results, get intact peppercorns rather than ground pepper.
There is no substitution for either doubanjiang or Sichuan pepper in this recipe. Both are essential to the flavor of mapo tofu and, without them, whatever has been made might or might not be a pleasant experience but definitely isn’t mapo tofu.
Tofu is, by now, familiar to most Western cooking enthusiasts. Tofu is made by soaking and blending soybeans into soy milk and chemically coagulating it into cheese-like curds. Different varieties of tofu have different levels of firmness, different amounts of the original soybean flavor persisting, different chemical coagulants, different subsequent processing steps, and different culinary applications, much as there are an infinite variety of cheeses. Unlike cheese, however, tofu is primarily protein, with comparatively little fat content, making it a popular meat alternative for vegetarians. Mapo tofu is traditionally made from blocks of soft tofu, but I have had the most success with what is sold as “extra firm tofu” at my local Costco.
One way I have innovated on traditional recipes is that I have added Filipino spicy longganisa sausage, a chorizo-like sausage available in the same Asian markets where I buy most of the other ingredients. Mapo tofu is traditionally flavored with a little minced pork or ground beef, which adds an additional savory element to the overall dish. I buy and freeze ground beef in quantities meant for dishes in which it is a dominant ingredient, so setting some aside for this dish is not a simple matter for me. I have found that using longanisa adds a little jolt of flavor that ordinary ground beef or pork would not, plus it is easier for me to partition and freeze in appropriate quantities and thaw as needed. I also find that the addition of frozen mixed vegetables provides a little extra time for adding seasonings at a critical step while also putting more mixed vegetables in my diet, which is always welcome.
This mapo tofu recipe serves four when provided with its customary accompaniment, white rice. I include instructions on making rice that is an especially good match for mapo tofu’s flavor profile. This recipe reheats well, but the spring onion garnish should be withheld from stored portions and added as needed for best effect.
To make the tofu and sauce, you will need your preferred cutting and measuring tools, a mortar and pestle, a cutting board, a large saucepan, a large spatula, and your preferred source of bottom-up heat. The way I’ve done it here also involves a Thai lucky iron fish, but this is firmly optional.
Mapo tofu is traditionally made in a wok, the roughly conical style of pot that is emblematic of Chinese cooking. I have found that, in the quantities in which I make mapo tofu, my trusty aluminum caldero is sufficient. It’s not a perfect match to the wok’s properties, but it gets me close enough.
To make the rice, you will need either a second caldero or a rice cooker.
More than most recipes I write, this recipe relies on ingredients encountering each other in a specific order or joining the main dish at specific points in the overall cooking process. This table groups the ingredients accordingly. Make sure all ingredients in a given table row are ready at the same time before moving on to their step. Some of these combination steps are more flexible than others.
Common Food Restrictions
- Gluten-Free: Note that asafoetida/hing, longganisa, and doubanjiang may or may not contain wheat flour depending on how they are prepared. Use gluten-free variations where necessary.
- Ketogenic / Low-Carb: This recipe is primarily a protein preparation and is therefore low-carb.
- Low-FODMAP: This recipe makes several digestion-friendly substitutions and should work on a low-FODMAP diet. The use of fermented items such as tofu and doubanjiang reduces the FODMAP risk relative to their non-fermented counterparts.
- Vegetarian/Vegan: The meat content of this dish can be removed entirely or substituted with a different savory flavor addition such as mushrooms, textured vegetable protein, or vegetable stock without compromising its essential character. Substitutions may require an adjustment to the cooking time.
- Boil 4 cups of water with a generous squirt of lemon juice. I add my Thai lucky iron fish as well. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. This water will be used for the rice.
- When the water has cooled enough to touch without pain (usually around Step 7 or 8), re-measure it and make up the difference from the desired 4 cups with more water. Add it, the rice, and some salt to the rice cooker and cook rice per package instructions. Leave on the “keep warm” setting until serving.
Tofu and Sauce
- Toast the Sichuan peppercorns by placing them in the caldero on medium-low heat and moving them around until their fragrance dramatically increases in intensity. The textured bottom of the caldero may make the other sign of successful toasting, small oil spots on the pan, difficult to see. Remove the caldero from the heat before the peppercorns burn.
- Crush the toasted Sichuan peppercorns from Step 3 in the mortar and pestle until they are a coarse powder. I find that the presence of some larger pieces adds pleasant texture to the final product, but grinding them finely is also suitable. Use a spice grinder instead if desired. Set aside.
- Drain the tofu and dry it on all sides with paper towels to remove excess surface moisture. Set aside wrapped in paper towels.
- Extract the longanisa from its casing. Discard the casing and mince the filling finely. It will likely not cleanly separate into bits yet, but this step helps it do so later. Set aside.
- Place the doubanjiang on the cutting board and finely mince it with a knife. This cuts the large beans inside it into smaller pieces, which is important for the final texture. Set aside.
- Slice the drained tofu block from Step 5 into 1” cubes. For mine, that means slicing the block into an array 2 high × 5 long × 5 wide.
- Check on the water from Step 1 and complete Step 2.
- Fill the saucepan with water, add 2 tablespoons of salt, and add the tofu cubes from Step 6. Simmer gently for about 2-3 minutes and then remove from heat. The tofu should be slightly swollen compared to its previous appearance. Set aside as-is.
- Add cooking oil to the caldero and raise heat to medium-high. Add the minced longanisa from Step 6 and cook until it is visibly done, which should only be a few minutes.
- Add the minced doubanjiang from Step 7 and lower heat to medium. Cook until the oil takes on the red color of the doubanjiang, which should only take another 1-2 minutes, stirring often. Doubanjiang burns easily, so pay attention at this step.
- Add asafoetida and Cayenne pepper and fry for another 1-2 minutes.
- Add 1 cup of water, beef bouillon powder, and frozen mixed vegetables.
- Add sugar, soy sauce, and cooking wine.
- Drain the tofu cubes from Step 10 and add them to the Make sure they are at a strong simmer and move them gently around the caldero to keep them from sticking or burning. Do not stir or they will break. Continue simmering for 3-4 minutes to reduce.
- Add crushed Sichuan peppercorns from Step 4 and vinegar.
- Mix the 1 teaspoon of cornstarch with 1 tablespoon of water to make a slurry and add the slurry to the This enables the cornstarch to remain suspended in the water while it mixes with the sauce, preventing it from clumping and causing it to instead thicken the sauce.
- Cook for a few more seconds, then add the sesame oil. If a thicker sauce is desired, cook a little longer to reduce a little more or add more slurry, but be wary of burning the sauce.
- Remove from heat and serve with rice from Step 2 / Step 9.
- Chop green onion greens for garnish.
This is the dish that convinced me that tofu could taste like something other than cold scrambled eggs. I tried it once, at a friend’s home, and immediately fell in such love with it that it became a regular part of my culinary rotation. It has also inspired me to make small, so far abortive forays into adapting its flavor profile for other dishes. I don’t like having things in my kitchen that are reserved for one specific use, but for mapo tofu, keeping longanisa, doubanjiang, Chinese cooking wine, and tofu on hand is worth it. I hope my variation, a little easier on the kitchen budget than the exemplary version I used as a model, serves you well.