Mapo Dofu (Ma pou do fu) for One


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:

Bang Bang Chicken
Bang Bang Chicken
Gong Bao/Kung Pao Chicken
Gong Bao/Kung Pao Chicken
Steamed Aubergine with Chilli Sauce
Steamed Aubergine with Chilli Sauce

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.



64 Replies to “Mapo Dofu (Ma pou do fu) for One”

    1. Thank you so much, Mr. Three-Cookies for such a big compliment! The author also says that traditionally Mapo Dofu “swims” in oil. I do like some fat (foie gras, spare ribs, pork belly…) but I think it’s not necessary in big amounts to fully enjoy this dish.

  1. What a beautiful tofu dish! Szechuan pepper is such a delicious ingredient. I remember the first time I tried it because I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of heat. Looks delicious Sissi!

  2. Another beautiful post Sissi! I am accustom to Szechuan pepper, though don’t really cook with it because my husband and little girl are less used to the numbing effect. Ma Po tofu is such a wonderful and comfort dish, my mouth is watering just by looking at your photo!

    I remember going to a family party at a Szechuan restaurant, the WHOLE dinner had that numbing pepper as an ingredient, by the end of the night it felt like every single one of us had no more taste buds left, hahah!

    1. Thank you so much, Jeno. I have heard that many people don’t like Sichuan pepper. For me the numbing effect has been an extremely exciting experience. I do like it, but I think it’s easier to exaggerate with it than with chili. Chili makes dishes hotter while Sichuan pepper can make them inedible… (You know, I have never had a dish that is too hot for me yet!).

  3. I am planning to go downtown on Saturday and I will make my way to China Town to pick up some of these incredible ingredients you write about. And then I can finally try some of these tantalizing recipes.

    1. Thank you so much, Eva. Unfortunately some ethnic cuisines require several obligatory ingredients… My fridge is constantly half-filled with sauces, pastes, spreads, seasonings and pickles for several different cuisines. I am seriously considering buying a second big fridge 😉

  4. I still have to be convinced that tofu can be made to taste good, other than as part of miso soup. Perhaps if someone served me this dish or it was on a restaurant menu. Otherwise, I’d give it a miss. 🙂

    1. I don’t know why, but even though I am a big carnivore (or piscivore), I have always liked tofu (the firm one) and was always surprised why people dislike it because it has such a neutral taste (but I know very few Europeans who actually like it; I even have vegetarian friends who dislike it). The soft one is a bit trickier to use and more difficult to like in my opinion.

      1. I usually buy the extra firm one as it holds up better to slicing then marinating, dicing and freezing to be thrown into miso soup. When you’re a single person, silken or soft tofu can go bad quite quickly in the fridge.

        I’ve tried marinating sliced tofu and then pan frying it but without a lot of success. Maybe if used instead of paneer (Indian farmer cheese) in dishes like mutter or saag paneer it would be better.

        1. Just like me! As I told someone I use the soft one in a different way (for example I add it to ground meat if I use lean meat, this way the dumplings are not dry). I have never marinated tofu I think… Substituting the Indian cheese sounds like a great idea.

          1. I couldn’t remember where I had seen this dish (thought it was on Nami’s blog) but you’ve made both it. I’ll have to compare the recipes cause I’d like to make it from scratch … once. 🙂

            Since I wasn’t sure I would like the flavours, I bought a box which contained an aluminum pouch with the sauce inside, a package of firm tofu, ground up some chicken breast and thigh for the meat flavouring and added a cup of green peas for colour since I didn’t have any green onion. Haven’t eaten the finished dish yet, but the sauce tastes really good. I bought a hot version. Not cheap either but I couldn’t see investing in the broadbean chili paste, which Nami used, for just one dish. 🙂

            1. If I remember Nami has posted Japanese version which is quite different from the Sichuanese one I found in my book (and in general from the one made in China). I’m sure your dish was flavoursome, but I never buy ready-to-make products like these because they usually do not contain the exact dish. As for the chili paste, the whole jar costs about 5 US dollars and it worth it. I have used it up in hardly one month on many, not only Asian, dishes. Most of all, for me Mapo Dofu is not complete if there is no Sichuan pepper, so I hope you were able to buy some!

              1. I understand your comment about commercial packets but I like to start with a flavour profile for a dish that I’ve never tasted before and I’ve found that they are generally acceptable to wide variety of palates. Once I know if I like it and whether I want more of something and less of something else in the dish, I can adjust it to my own taste.

                As to the sechuan pepper, I have NO idea whether it’s even available in town. I’d rather start with something similar tasting rather than not making the dish at all because I can’t find one ingredient. I’ve substituted ingredients before when I knew what the dish SHOULD taste like. 🙂

                This is the brand I used … for $4.99 a package.


                1. Of course, I understand! Maybe I had bad experience with such ready-to-eat products, but of course there are exceptions. In the case of Mapo Dofu I was also in a different situation from yours: the chili paste was the only ingredient I needed to buy… I do however insist on you tasting Sichuan pepper. It’s the key ingredient in many Sichuan dishes and Mapo Dofu is one of them. You might not like it though (many people don’t like it).

                    1. Haha! Opt for the smallest package possible. At worst it will be at least an interesting tasting experience…

  5. Ohhh looks delicious! Unfortunately I have only tried Japansese style Mabo Dofu before but this is one of my favorite go to dish. Shen will love this spicy version for sure but for my kids and myself we can only handle non-spicy Mabo Dofu… Such a shame! The red color looks so appetizing and I can’t help thinking how my tummy cannot handle spice. 🙁

    1. Thank you so much, Nami. I like hot food more and more… Now that it’s cold I think I wouldn’t survive one day without at least one fiery meal! I think that I learnt to “survive” hot food. I enjoyed it and “practiced” it regularly and I can eat hotter every year. I have never tasted the Japanese Mabo Dofu. I suppose I would bring a bottle of hot chili bean sauce with me 😉 and some Sichuan peppercorns to sprinkle.

  6. Hi Sissi – “Pock-marked Mother Chen’s Beancurd”… lol, I have to say, the name doesn’t sound too enticing but then some of these Sichuanese dishes seem to have truly “unique” names (strange flavour chicken!!! Love it, I remember your post well). It looks really good – I’m trying to work out whether I’ve had it before… there’s an excellent Chinese restaurant in Paris where I’ve been once or twice and this looks very similar to something I had there. I’ve never cooked with Sichuan pepper though – it sounds delightful… the numbing effect sounds like a real bit of fun… I hope I can get a hold of some!

    1. Thank you, Charles. Doesn’t it sound awful??? Poor woman… Instead of naming it “Beautiful Mother Chen’s Beancurd”… I find these Chinese names really funny. Mapo Dofu is really delicious if you like hot food (I hope this is the exceptional restaurant serving hot food too… The French are so scared of hot dishes!).

      1. I KNOW… isn’t it so sad? No, don’t worry – this restaurant is… well, I never found another Chinese place like this before. It’s incredible. They serve traditional “Frenchified” stuff… you know, nems, beef stir-fried with onions… when I see people in there eating this I want to scream at them… “WHY, WHY do you come here and order THIS?”. They have amazing stuff… crispy, stir-fried aubergine, whole flat fish in a big plate of spicy oil, covered with herbs, minced pork, coriander, green beans and chillies, stir-fried cucumber and chilli, potatoes, a big pot of cabbage with chiilies and a sauce which is cooked at the table like a hotpot… they’re not easy on the chillies here… there’s plenty of spice to go round! 😀

        1. Wow! It sounds great really. The Swiss are less “delicate” with hot food, but most of all there are so many international clients in my city that hot food or at least home-made chili sauces are served in many Asian restaurants (but not everywhere!).

          1. It is – one of my favourite restaurants in Paris, simply because of the range of flavours, and after the very “flat” flavours which are common in French cuisine… lots of starch, carbs and cheese, this is like a piquant, spicy, herby punch in the throat. If you ever come to visit me here I’ll take you to it (or the Korean BBQ place which is also great!).

            1. Thank you, Charles 🙂 I hope I will go to Paris some time soon because I miss the frequent trips I had until several years ago…

  7. Szechwan food being very popular in Australia we see lots of variations on Mapo Dofu on our food programmes. I prep it often: it truly is one of the most fun ways to eat tofu if the latter is not amongst one’s favourites. Have to admit to quite a bit more in the chilli department tho’ 😀 !

  8. Sissi, you have become the ‘queen’ of Asian cuisine…such vast information on each and every dish you prepare to perfection. I love Sichuan/Sechuan cuisine so much; love the extreme heat of the sauces. Every time I order Chinese, it has to be Sechuan…the hotter the better. I love the addition of the tofu, but only if I were to make it vegetarian. As for the ground beef and pork, it truly adds more flavor, and texture
    Love this awesome dish, and will want to try it soon:)

    1. Elisabeth, thank you for the compliments! I simply cook a lot of Asian cuisine and am always glad to discover new regions or countries through it. I cannot imagine this dish without tofu. Even for me, a big carnivore, tofu is what tastes best here! Strangely I don’t see tofu as a meat substitute but as another form of protein (a bit like mushroom or cheese).

    1. Thank you so much, Barb. This book is very special indeed, but if I remember well you don’t have scales, so either look for an American version (I don’t know if there is) or buy scales. (The book is British, with grams). Now I prepare less cold meat dishes, but bang bang chicken will be a regular dish every summer.

  9. I’ll need to find you an Asian name soon 🙂
    I’m with Mr T, much prefer your version instead of the usual ones swimming in oil. And I like the big pieces of tofu instead of what we get, which is quite broken up.
    Gorgeous color!

    1. Thank you so much, Ping. You are so funny 🙂 I mainly eat Asian food, it’s true. It’s usually lighter, quicker and I find it easier to consume more vegetables than the European way, just as a boring side dish… (Of course there are exceptions such as soy sauce braised pork ribs… but such treats are obligatory from time to time!). Not to mention hot food I am addicted to. I am impatient to finally visit a country where I will be served a meal which will actually be too hot for me. (Until now I haven’t had this pleasure anywhere… not in anyone’s house nor in a restaurant…). Time to visit Malaysia 😉
      I don’t know if people usually put firm or soft tofu here, but I have preferred the firm one (otherwise I thought it would be easily broken). Maybe it’s traditionally served with softer tofu?

    1. Thank you so much. I don’t live alone, but I make certain dishes only for myself and I am also often disappointed to see dishes for six…

    2. I live alone but often make big pots of stuff so I don’t have to cook too often and can freeze the extra for later meals. I found that donburi’s, okonomiyaki and other dishes like that are very suitable for single people to put together and work best when freshly made.

      Yesterday’s rice, fried egg and hamburger patty concoction (a loco moco) was quite tasty and made for one. 🙂 (shameless brag!)

      1. I totally agree! I often prepare okonomiyaki and different rice bowls (donburi) only for myself. Your egg and hamburger looks fantastic indeed!

  10. I had to smile… I thought, wow, Sissi is presenting us with a purely plant protein meal here… until I looked at the ingredients list and saw the meat – heehee… ;-). What a succulent looking dish and I have to agree, it may well be the dish that converts the unconverted :). I love Szechuan cuisine but had no idea that Mapo Dofu was the undisputed most famous…I’m not sure I’ve come across chili bean paste but I think it is a must have in my pantry. I’m heading to the grocery store later today (usually 3 times a day – haha!) so I will scope it out. Excellent photo by the way – these sorts of dishes are not always easy to manage but you did a great job capturing the essence and lip-smacking goodness of this dish! Thank you for reminding us of your other yummy recipes from the same cookbook. They all look so tempting Sissi!

    1. Thank you so much, Kelly. I’m a big carnivore 😉 In fact I never treat tofu as a meat substitute, but as a different source of protein (such as mushrooms or cheese). I hope it makes sense… Anyway, I don’t see anything weird in serving it alone or together with meat. Now I’m thinking that maybe this is why I have always liked tofu (I haven’t suffered from the tofuphobia so many people I know have). The meat amount is really small here. The main ingredient is still tofu and, as I told Elisabeth, tofu is the star of this dish. (Although there is a version without meat… I suppose the original version was without meat because it’s a dish for the poor…). Thank you so much for the photo compliment. I really appreciate it. I am almost never happy with my photos… I still have many recipes bookmarked in this wonderful books, so more Sichuan delicacies will be posted soon!

      1. I struggle with the whole photo thing too… your image is not only appetizing but the elements are very crisp/clear – sometimes with this sort of thing it all meshes in together without defining parts; not the case at all here. Very well done Sissi!

        1. Thank you so much again, Kelly. Your photos are wonderful. I cannot imagine you struggling with them! (Although I see that you take more care than me of the presentation in which I am not good at all).

  11. I think this is the first tofu dish that I’ve seen with meat in it. That in itself is unusual to me and quite appealing. You’ve really sold me on this recipe! The seasoning, the combination of tofu and ground beef and then when you said to serve it with bread to dip in the sauce – well, that push it over the edge. Any dish that has a bread dipping sauce has to be good! I do love Sichuan so this is on the winners’ list. Thanks for another wonderful recipe!

    1. Thank you so much, MJ, for the compliments. I’m glad to show you another face of tofu 😉 Just joking, but as I have told already someone here, I have never treated tofu as a vegetarian meat substitute, but as another source of protein or simply another ingredient (such as mushrooms for example). This is probably why, even though I eat meat or fish every day (and couldn’t live with vegetarian meals), I like tofu and cook it quite often. In this dish the tofu is really the best part though and the meat amount is really tiny (on the other hand I’m not sure if I would like it without meat…).

  12. fuschia dunlop is one of my favourite chinese authors for chinese cooking too, I love how she manages to keep true to these recipes’ authenticity instead of just doing dishes that are slipshod misrepresentations of the cuisine, and how she’s really interested in the culture and history of the food. p.s. the tofu you shoudl use for ma po tofu should be the softer silken tofu, it gives a more velvety bland feel which contrasts the thick spicy sauce better (: that said, this does look fab anyhows, yummm!

    1. Thanks a lot, Shuhan. I’m glad you like Ms Dunlop too. Actually I have tried it with soft tofu and preferred the firm one… The soft tofu became too mushy, it started to crumble and I didn’t like it. In general I prefer the firm tofu (unless I use the soft one to fill the dumplings etc.). I hope it still remains a Mapo Dofu 😉

  13. I love that this dish is for one, because I am the only one who can stand the spicy sauce in this house. In fact I had some with noodles and ddumplings for lunch today, but the tofu sounds pretty amazing too!

    1. Thank you, Martyna. I always make it only for myself but not because of the hotness but because of the tofu 😉 I am the only fan in the house.

  14. Dear Sissi,

    You are seriously quite impressive being European and cooking such classic Chinese dishes.

    This is one of my favourite comfort dishes because it goes so well with just some steamed white rice and I often cook enough for like 4 people but have it over a few meals for just myself 🙂

    1. I’m really very flattered, Chopinand. Thank you so much for such kind words. I always cook it only for myself but I can well imagine having it several meals in a row too.

  15. I finally had a chance to make this dish ‘from scratch’ and using, Sichuan/Szechuan peppercorns. At least I’m pretty sure they were the correct type. I posted a picture of what I used as the English label on the vacuum sealed package just said “PEPPER”.

    I tried a different recipe/technique which incorporated the ground pepper (and didn’t ask you to roast the peppercorns before grinding) into the sauce mixture before cooking the dish which may be why I didn’t get as much of a numbing effect as sprinkling on the pepper at the end. I also forgot to taste the peppecorn before hand too. 🙁

    Oh well, next time I’ll do better.

    1. Thank you so much for the feedback. I have just checked your Mapo Dofu. It sounds really good (apart from the final sprinkling which does change the dish significantly). Roasting spices brings out more power and aroma indeed (I also did it several times in Indian recipes instead of using ground spices and it was really good). I think that the most important is that your dish was delicious and that you have finally bought Sichuan pepper. As I have mentioned on your blog, you can also try Sichuan pepper in Bang Bang chicken (Fuchsia Dunlop’s too ). It’s really extraordinary, but maybe better for warmer days…
      As for your recipe, it’s quite similar, but I had spent quite a lot of time before choosing Fuchsia Dunlop’s book and trust it: it’s apparently the best Sichuan cookery book in English (though some people say it’s still not exactly what they serve in Sichuan). I think that even in other regions in China Mapo Dofu is quite modified (not everyone likes Sichuan peppercorns for example, so they get rid of it). Anyway, I hope your adventure with Sichuan pepper will continue!

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