Mapo Dofu is certainly the most famous Sichuan dish, so obviously it was the first one I have bookmarked in my Sichuan Cookery by Fuchsia Dunlop. Before discovering Ms Dunlop’s book I had prepared Mapo Dofu from another source. It was good, but this one really feels genuine and tastes much better than I had imagined. According to Fuchsia Dunlop this is “the real thing” she was taught in the Sichuan provincial cooking school and exactly what she was regularly served in local restaurants. Given my previous experience with her Sichuan recipes, I believe her. After cooking several of her dishes I am convinced that the mixture of right seasonings and spices is what makes the biggest difference between real Sichuan meals and their imitations. I only hope that in spite of my small modifications this dish still merits its famous name.
As Fuchsia Dunlop’s explains, Mapo Dofu (or Ma po dou fu) means “Pock-marked Mother Chen’s Beancurd”. It was named after a restaurant owner’s wife who had smallpox scars and who apparently invented this dish as a lunch for manual workers. As you can guess, it is a hearty, filling comfort dish, but unless you use lots of oil (the way it is served in Sichuan), it is surprisingly healthy and low-calorie. You can also see below that the meat amounts are scarce and tofu is the main protein supply here.
For me this dish is unique. First of all, maybe thanks to the colours and the Sichuan pepper’s numbing effect, it is one of these rare cold days meals which bring the sun and lift the spirits, instead of making one feel heavy. Moreover, I strongly believe this is THE dish that could convert tofu haters. As long as they are not psychologically blocked (oh, yes… I know many of these) and agree to taste it, they might start liking the previously despised ingredient. If they don’t appreciate the tofu chunks soaked with thick, red spicy sauce, covered with bits of ground meat, then I think the hope is lost. As an avowed carnivore, I really cannot think of any other food product that could taste equally good here. I recommend having this dish with good crunchy bread which, once dipped into the sauce brings even more joy for the palate (it’s not an elegant dish and you will probably not serve it at a party anyway). The only modification I have allowed myself is cutting down the oil amount and adapting this recipe to a meal for one.
If you are interested in the Sichuanese cuisine, I strongly recommend the above-mentioned book or/and the following recipes I have found there and greatly enjoyed:
TIPS: Sichuan pepper is one of the key elements of the Sichuanese cuisine. It is not hot, but it has a numbing effect which is very surprising for the first time. Some people love it (like me), some hate it, so if you use it for the first time, crush one corn in your mouth to taste it before you add it to your dish. In general it should be used sparingly because it can quickly overwhelm the whole dish.
The Sichuanese chili bean paste is very important here (thank you, Shu Han, for convincing me to invest in it; the difference is huge), but it can quite easily be bought in Asian shops. The most popular brand is Lee Kum Kee (this is the one I have used).
Sichuan peppers scattered at the and of the cooking process have to be roasted and ground before. Heat a pan or a wok and place a small amount of Sichuan peppercorns. Roast them for about 5 minutes (or less) without burning them. Grind them in a mortar or a small food processor (a baby food processor is good here). They can be kept in a closed jar for several weeks at least.
Preparation: 15 – 20 minutes
Ingredients (serves one):
100 – 150 g firm tofu cut into 2 cm pieces
40 – 50 g ground meat (the traditional meat used here is beef, but I prefer half beef half pork)
1 spring onion (or 1 Chinese leek, suan miao, the traditional ingredient)
100 ml chicken stock
1 tablespoon Sichuanese chili bean paste
1 teaspoon black fermented beans
1 teaspoon ground dried chilies (not obligatory)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon potato flour
2 tablespoons oil (groundnut or other type of oil which supports well very high temperatures) or 40 – 50 ml if you want the dish as oily as it is originally served
1/4 teaspoon (or less) roasted and ground Sichuan pepper (see the TIPS above)
Pour boiling water into a bowl, add a pinch of salt and place there tofu cubes for about 5 minutes. Drain it.
In the meantime slice the spring onion or leek diagonally.
Combine the potato flour with 1 tablespoon cold water and put aside.
Heat the oil on high heat in a wok until it smokes. Stir fry the ground meat until it’s crispy and browned.
Here you can either leave it in the wok or put it aside and add only at the end. I prefer the latter method which leaves the meat slightly crunchy.
Take out the meat from the wok.
Pour another tablespoon of oil and when it’s hot, add the chili bean paste, the fermented black beans, ground dried chilies and stir-fry for about 30 seconds.
Pour the stock and add the drained tofu.
Stir the tofu delicately until it is coated in the sauce.
Add the sugar, the soy sauce, salt to taste and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add the leek or spring onion, the fried meat and half of the potato flour mixture.
Stir the dish gently until it thickens. Add more potato flour mixture if needed.
Serve in a bowl scattered with Sichuan pepper.