Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a fan of Sichuan food, thanks in part to local Brighton restaurant Lucky Star and in part to the books of Fuschia Dunlop. I’ve always found Chinese food rather daunting in comparison to other Asian cuisines – perhaps because it’s often harder to eat something and pick out the ingredients by taste and sight – but the simultaneously spicy and reassuring qualities of Sichuan cooking are like catnip to me. Mapo tofu is a familiar dish to anyone who has eaten in a standard Chinese restaurant in the US but most of these versions are pretty inauthentic, or at least taste like a completely different dish to me. Proper Sichuan mapo tofu is searingly spicy, featuring a combination of numbing Sichuan peppercorns and hot dried chilies, balanced by the smooth cooling tofu. The dish supposedly originates in Chengdu and means pock-marked old lady tofu. Like many classic dishes, there’s an origin story about this one old lady who made amazing tofu, which all restaurants in Chengdu now promise to emulate. I’m not sure about the existence of the old lady, but like all recipe origin stories, this one promises one true dish that all others must emulate. It’s a model that places a high premium on authenticity but seems to allow for endless debate about the exact right way to do it. In other words, it’s the perfect dish for the novice to learn…

This weekend I was feeding an old friend who had come a long way to see me and was feeling rather stressed out. It felt like a good time to bust out the Sichuan comfort food. I started from Dunlop’s recipe, but I wanted to read around a bit. So, I did what I usually do when researching unfamiliar cuisines and researched how other bloggers I trust had done it. Serious Eats had a delicious looking take on the dish, with lots of useful tips in the comments, and Rasa Malaysia also has a recipe. They are actually all quite similar, and it seems that so long as you are able to find a couple of key Chinese store-cupboard ingredients (chili bean paste and fermented black beans), and are willing to insert both numbing and hot flavour at all stages, then an authentic mapo tofu can be yours. Mine came out what I would describe as medium spicy and I think next time I’ll use more chilies and more chili oil. However, if you like your food only moderately hot, this recipe is probably just right.

The dish is traditionally made with pork or beef, but you can make a vegetarian version either with TVP or with chopped shiitake or portabella mushrooms. You probably want to replace the meat rather than skip it entirely as you want something with a bit of texture to contrast with the soft tofu.

Mapo tofu

  • 1 large block of tofu (soft for preference), cut into bite size pieces
  • 1/2 lb of pork mince
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped fine
  • 2 leeks
  • 3 tbsp chili bean paste
  • 1 tbsp fermented black beans
  • 1/4 cup Sichuan peppercorns (don’t panic, they’re not all going into the finished dish!)
  • 35-40 dried red chilies (as above)
  • 1tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1/2-1 tbsp sugar
  • 3 scallions, finely chopped
  • water
  • oil for cooking

First heat about 1/4 cup of oil in a wok. When hot, add all but a tbsp of the Sichuan peppercorns and 20 of the dried chilies. Fry till fragrant, about half a minute at most. Drain, retaining the oil in a bowl and discard the chilies and peppercorns.

Put about half the fragrant oil back into the wok and reheat. Stir-fry the pork until browned all over. Now add the garlic and leeks and fry until the leeks are softened, about 5 minutes. You might want to turn down the heat for this stage to prevent the garlic from burning.

Grind the remaining tbsp of Sichuan peppercorns to powder and add to the wok, along with the chili bean paste and remaining dried chilies. Wash the black beans (they’re salty) and add to the wok. Continue to stir and cook for another minute or so. Now add the water – 1/2 cup at first and more if it looks too thick – and then gently add the tofu pieces and mix. Add soy sauce and sugar (your sugar needs will be determined by the saltiness of the beans, so go gradually and taste).

Cook for about 5 more minutes, stirring carefully. To serve, sprinkle with chopped scallions and pour over some more chili oil.

Serves 4

Adapted from Fuschia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty.