Mapo tofu. Behold its Sichuan pepperiness and its gloppy oily guts. If you’ve ever had a really great mapo tofu you’ll immediately recognize the abundance of spicy red oil and fried bits of pork. It’s got that quintessential pleasing numbness that comes with eating Sichuan Chinese food.
Roughly translated from Chinese, mapo tofu means “pockmarked grandma’s bean curd.” It’s a dish named after the old lady who likely invented it in a town called Chengdu in the Sichuan province of China.
Do you think the pockmarked grandmother and General Tso knew each other?
Mapa tofu is one of the central dishes of Sichuan (or Szechuan) cuisine. It’s got tons of garlic and sichuan peppercorns and I’d say alongside dan dan noodles and tea smoked duck, it’s one of the most popular Sichuan dishes ever, especially in New York city. If you’re afraid of trying this at home and live in New York City, try the mapo tofu at either Szechuan Gourmet or Lan Sheng, two of my favorite Chinese places in the city located directly across the street from each other on 39th Street just south of Bryant Park.
I did a lot of digging for this post. I watched terrible videos on youtube of nice Chinese ladies trying to explain how to make mapo and not doing a very good job. Some recipes call for both spicy bean sauce and chili bean sauce. Others called for very little sichuan peppercorns. This recipe is a mash-up of about five different recipes I found. You may have never heard of any of these ingredients but I assure you, they are not hard to find. It might look complicated but my mapo tofu can be made from start to finish in under 45 minutes. I did all of my shopping at J Mart in Flushing, Queens but I know for a fact you can find sichuan peppercorns at New Kam Man market in Manhattan’s chinatown, or any of the Chinese grocery stores found here.
You will need:
3 tablespoons of sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons Chili Bean Sauce (toban djan)
2 tablespoons Spicy Bean Sauce
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (you can use hotter chilies if like)
1lb. package soft tofu (not silken, but soft)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon chili oil
1 2-inch piece of fresh ginger
4 large garlic cloves
2 scallions (green onions)
3/4 cup chicken broth
1/2 lb ground pork
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 cup sushi rice
1 1/4 cup water
1 11-inch non-stick wok (I highly recommend using a wok for this)
1. First prepare all your ingredients as the cooking of this dish goes pretty fast. Peel and finely mince your garlic and ginger and set aside. Chop the scallions and set aside in a small bowl. Place the peppercorns in a small plastic bag, seal and pound with a heavy jar or can until about 1/2 of the corns are powder.
2. Carefully remove the tofu from the package, drain and wrap in a paper towel to remove the moisture. Replace the paper towel and set aside for ten minutes, then slice into 1-inch cubes.
3. (you can skip this step if you have a rice cooker or don’t want rice) Make the rice by combining 1 cup rinsed sushi rice and 1 1/4 cups water in a sturdy pot with a tight-fitting lid. You don’t need a rice cooker to make rice, just don’t remove the lid. Bring the rice and water to a boil in the COVERED pot. When the lid starts to shake the water is boiling (about 5 minutes), turn the heat down and simmer for exactly 15 minutes. Remove from the heat without taking off the lid and let it sit for 5 minutes. Finally remove the lid and store the rice in a new bowl covered with a damp kitchen cloth. There will be some rice stuck to the bottom of the pan and ruined, ignore it, cut your losses and move on.
4. Heat 1/4 cup vegetable oil in the wok over medium heat. Add the half crushed peppercorns and cook for 2 minutes. Then add the ginger, turn the heat up to medium-high and cook for 1 minute. Then add the garlic, red pepper flakes, 1 tablespoon chili oil and 1 tablespoon sesame oil and cook for another 2 minutes.
5. Now add the pork to your fragrant mixture and cook for another 2 minutes. Add both bean pastes and stir frequently. If the pan seems too hot, turn the heat down slightly. Add the chicken broth to the wok.
6. In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch with 1/4 cup water until all the clumps are broken up. Add to the sauce and continue to cook. Stir frequently as the cornstarch starts to thicken the sauce. Now is a good point to taste your sauce. Add more chili oil if you want it extra hot.
7. Add the tofu and chopped scallions (reserve a small amount to sprinkle on top at the end) and gently fold into the sauce. The tofu is delicate but you also want some pieces to break off the cubes and mix into the sauce. Cook for another 3-5 minutes and serve immediately over a bowl of rice.
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