How to Make Mapo Tofu at Home
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The numbing spice of Sichuan cooking is world-famous—and for good reason! This recipe for fiery mapo tofu is surprisingly simple to make at home.
When my father took over a takeout restaurant in Phoenix in the early 1990s, the menu quickly grew from 18 dishes to over 50. Though beyond impractical and bordering on ridiculous for such a small restaurant, my father’s passion for food inspired him to share his most beloved dishes. One such dish was mapo tofu.
This fiery, savory and melt-in-your-mouth dish has been one of my favorites for as long as I can remember. The spicy tofu harmonizing with hot white rice—there’s nothing better! Though it wasn’t a top seller back then (like Mongolian Beef or Chicken Chow Mein), customers in the know sought it out with dedication.
One Taiwanese-American customer who worked long days at a nearby tech company frequented our restaurant at least once a week. He found a rare taste of home in our mapo tofu. Sitting at his usual corner table, his nose twitched in anticipation. He would carefully open the white, rectangular takeout container, handling it like a treasure chest. His face lit up as steam fogged up his wire-rimmed glasses. He savored every bite with a smile like he’d struck gold in the middle of the Arizona desert.
What Is Mapo Tofu?
Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐) is a legendary dish from Chengdu of Sichuan province in China, consisting of cubed silken tofu tossed with minced meat and simmered in a bright red, flavorful sauce. The literal translation of the dish’s name is pockmarked (麻 ma) grandma’s (婆 po) bean curd (豆腐 tofu), which bluntly refers to the woman named Chen who invented it at her restaurant in the late 1800s.
Learn more about Sichuan cooking.
How to Make Mapo Tofu
Recipes with as long of a history as mapo tofu, whose fame and popularity has spread across oceans, are bound to have many deviations in preparation. Until recently, I assumed mapo tofu was difficult to make because the flavors are so complex. But when I finally worked up the courage to try making it at home, I found that it’s a surprisingly simple dish to make with the right ingredients.
- 1 block (about 19 ounces) silken tofu
- 1/4 lb minced pork
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 3 tablespoons chili oil
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons chili bean sauce (doubanjiang or toban djan) 辣豆瓣酱
- 1/2 teaspoon fermented black bean garlic sauce, optional
- 1 tablespoon ground Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 green onions, chopped
- 1/2 cup water or chicken stock
Editor’s note: For a vegetarian version of mapo tofu, use sliced shiitake mushrooms instead of pork.
Tools You’ll Need
- Wok or large frying pan
- Wide spatula
- Shallow bowl
Step 1: Prepare the tofu
Drain and cut the tofu into ¾-inch cubes and set aside.
Step 2: Heat up the wok
Heat up a wok or large frying pan. When hot, add cooking oil, chili oil, and chopped garlic.
Step 3: Add ground pork and chili bean paste
Stir-fry until the pork is partially cooked and loosened up, one to two minutes.
Step 4: Add sauces and tofu
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Add soy sauce, fermented black bean garlic sauce (optional) and stir until fragrant.
Then, add tofu and stir gently to blend well with sauce.
Step 5: Thicken the sauce
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Add water (or stock) and bring to boil. Simmer for three to five minutes until sauce thickens slightly. Shake the pan gently a few times to help the sauce absorb into the tofu. (This recipe calls for silken tofu because it soaks up other flavors—like a sponge! Learn more about different types of tofu.)
Step 6: Season
Sprinkle with roasted Sichuan peppercorn powder and chopped scallions. Gently stir to blend well.
Scoop the mapo tofu into a shallow bowl and serve steaming hot, with heaps of white rice.
Editor’s tip: Have a rice cooker going while you prep the mapo tofu.
Tips for Making Mapo Tofu at Home
- The specialty ingredients can be found at most Chinese grocery stores, but they can also be ordered on Amazon or from a specialty shop.
- If you have trouble finding the chili bean sauce (doubanjiang or toban djan) and don’t mind having a less authentic version, use two tablespoons of sriracha sauce, mixed with a tablespoon of hoisin sauce and a tablespoon of oyster sauce.
- Though I like using pork, minced beef is the traditional ingredient in mapo tofu. But any minced protein, like chicken or turkey, will work well.
- If you have trouble keeping tofu cubes intact, sprinkle the cubes with salt and boil in water for five to ten seconds. Then strain and set aside until time to use.
- Can’t find ground Sichuan peppercorn powder or prefer homemade spices? Toast whole Sichuan peppercorns in a wok or skillet over medium heat for two to three minutes until aromatic, then blend in a spice grinder.
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