Mapo Tofu (麻婆豆腐)
November 20, 2021  Print
Mapo Tofu, a famous Sichuan dish, is now so popular worldwide that you can find it in almost any Chinese restaurant. There are also many different versions of it. In the West, Mapo Tofu tends to be less numbing and spicy due to a preference for less heat.
You can make this dish at home according to your own tolerance for heat and “ma” (numbing 麻) without sacrificing the authenticity of this dish. As long as you have Sichuan peppercorns (花椒), Pixian Douban (郫县豆瓣), and some chili peppers or chili powder, it’s hard to mess up the flavor. Ground beef is used in the original mapo tofu recipe, but you can also use ground pork instead.
Another advantage of making this dish at home is the flexibility in your choice of tofu. You can use any type of tofu for this recipe. The soft ones and firm ones each have their own advantages. In my opinion soft tofu is more smooth and silky whereas the firm tofu has more texture and flavor. Give both a try when making this dish and see which type of tofu you like the most.
Mapo Tofu does not take much time to make from beginning to end, but there are some steps that should not be overlooked. No matter the type of tofu used for this dish, it needs to first be blanched in hot water with some salt for one minute to remove any raw flavor from the tofu. Pixian Douban needs to be cooked under medium-low to low heat in order to result in the coveted “red oil” signature to this dish. Cooking Pixian Douban under high heat would burn it quickly and ruin the dish. Starch water should also be added a teaspoon at a time until the right consistency is achieved. I usually only use 1/3 to 1/2 of the starch water that this recipe calls for. I would rather you add less starch water than too much. Adding too much starch water would make this dish too dense and the “red oil” would not float on top.
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Servings: 2 – 4 people
- 1 box of tofu 1
- 2 oz (~50 g) ground beef 2
- 1 1-inch piece of ginger
- 2 green onions (green part only)
- pinch of salt
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns 3
- 3 or more dried chili peppers 4
- 1 tablespoon Pixian Douban 5
- 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- ~1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon corn starch
- Boil a pot of water in a sauce pan. While waiting for water to boil, cut the tofu block into small cubes. When the water boils, gently transfer the tofu cubes into the water and add a pinch of salt. Set the heat to medium. Let the tofu blanch for 1 minute. Afterwards, gently transfer and drain the tofu.
- Peel and mince the ginger. Cut the green onions into small pieces and set aside.
- Heat a well seasoned wok or small skillet under medium-high heat. When the pot is hot, add the 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. When the oil is warm, add the 1 teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns and the dried chili peppers. Fry the Sichuan peppercorns and dried chili peppers for about 20 – 30 seconds until peppercorns and dried chili have turned into a darker color but are not burnt. Take the spices out to a bowl to cool. Leave the oil in the wok. Once the fried Sichuan peppercorns and chili peppers have cooled, use a mortar and pestle to grind them into finer pieces. Set aside.
- Heat the same wok with the oil from step 3 under medium-low heat. When the oil is getting warm, add the ground beef and minced ginger. Stir and toss to separate any lumps. When ground beef changes color from pink to whitish and looks a bit dry, add the 1 tablespoon of Pixian Douban and mix together. When red-colored oil comes out, add the 1 teaspoon of light soy sauce, 1/2 teaspoon of sugar, and 1 cup of water (a wok is ideal since the shape of the wok allows the tofu to be mostly immersed in the liquid). Raise the heat to medium.
- When the liquid bubbles, add the blanched tofu cubes. Gently stir together until well mixed. Cook the tofu for 5 minutes in the liquid.
- While the tofu cooks, mix the 1 tablespoon of corn starch with 2 tablespoons of water to make starch water. When the tofu is done cooking, use a teaspoon to slowly add the starch water one spoon at a time, gently mixing as you go. If there is not much liquid left, you might only need to add 1 teaspoonful of starch water. If liquid still appears thin, pour some more starch water or wait until the liquid thickens a bit. It’s important not to over use starch water. The liquid/sauce is NOT supposed to be thick like chowder.
- Turn off the heat and transfer everything to a dish/plate with some depth. Sprinkle the ground Sichuan pepper and dried chili peppers on top along with the minced green onion pieces.
- It’s really a personal preference as to the type of tofu to use for this dish. Both soft and firm tofu work well. In my opinion soft tofu is more smooth and silky whereas the firm tofu has more texture and flavor. The amount of tofu in the one I used here is 10 oz (~285 g), but you can use up to 16 oz (450 g) of tofu.
- The most traditional Mapo Tofu calls for minced or ground beef. But you can use ground pork or even chicken instead. Or if you are a vegetarian or vegan, skip the meat all together. The dish will still taste great.
- Sichuan peppercorn is essential for this dish. It cannot be replaced with other types of peppercorns. There are two types of Sichuan peppercorn, the red and the green type. Either works. An alternative to whole Sichuan peppercorn is store-bought ground Sichuan pepper (may also be known as Chinese pepper powder 花椒粉), which is more common in grocery stores. It won’t be as fragrant as when you use whole peppercorns, but it will still have the distinctive numbing taste of Sichuan peppercorn. If using ground Sichuan pepper, skip frying in step 3 and pour some hot oil on top of the store-bought Sichuan pepper and dried chili peppers after they are added on top of the tofu in step 7.
- You can add more dried chili peppers depending on your heat tolerance. If you don’t have dried chili peppers, you can use coarse or fine chili powder instead. If using chili powder, skip the frying in step 3 and pour some hot oil on top of the ground Sichuan pepper and dried chili peppers after they are added on top of the tofu in step 7.
- Pixian Douban (郫县豆瓣酱) is also essential to this dish. Pixian Douban is a fermented chili bean paste that is characteristic to and ubiquitous in Sichuan cuisine. It’s what gives the appearance of the Mapo Tofu with its distinctive red oil floating on top. But it’s actually not that spicy even for people with low heat tolerance. You can find it in most Asian grocery stores. Pixian (郫县) is the location in Sichuan Chengdu where this type of Doubanjiang or fermented chili bean paste is produced. If you can’t find Pixian Douban (郫县豆瓣), other brands of spicy Doubanjiang should suffice.
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Hi. What do you think about using 花椒 (Sichuan pepper) oil instead of the dry peppercorns?
I have bought 花椒 before, but the ones I bought seemed to be lacking in freshness. So, I thought buying the oil might be better (as I would guess that the oil-making factory will always use fresh ingredients) if we are unsure about getting fresh spices. (And, I can always refrigerate or freeze the oil to preserve its aromaticity).
Hey Kevin, if you have Sichuan pepper oil, you can definitely use that instead of using whole dry peppercorns to infuse oil.
The Sichuan peppercorns do tend to lose flavor if not used within one year. So in that sense, using Sichuan pepper oil would be better and more convenient. That said, if you can get ahold of some quality Sichuan peppercorns, infused oil will be much more flavorful and fragrant. Also in the last step for Mapo Tofu, the ground fried Sichuan pepper adds more kick, flavor, and texture to the dish.