The Fiery Way of Ma Po Tofu – Sichuan’s Signature Dish

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The spicy Sichuan dish “ma po tofu” has become a flaming sensation around the world. You can prepare this bowl full of flavor in your own kitchen. (Image: Дмитрий Журавлев (dejur) via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ma po tofu is a classic Chinese dish of Sichuan cuisine that has grown in popularity and seems to be leaving a flaming path in all Cantonese and Hong Kong restaurants, as well as those in Japan (where it is known as mabo dofu.) Ma po tofu can also be found on menus in many American restaurants. 

The dish consists of custard-like tofu cubes in a spicy beef or pork sauce over rice. The recipe contains a fermented bean curd called doubanjiang, red chile oil, chile flakes, and an abundance of Sichuan peppercorns, with the meat occasionally left out. Mushrooms are sometimes included according to the customer’s preference. Sichuan peppercorns produce a tingling, numbing effect and are often added together with chili peppers to create a flavor known as málà (Chinese: 麻辣; “numb-spiciness”).

People have said that the traditional fermented bean curd, doubanjiang, is the heart and soul of Sichuan culinary tradition.

There is an interesting story behind the dish. “Ma po” actually means something like “smallpox-scarred grandmother,” and it alludes to the dish’s creator, who was afflicted with the disease as a child. In the early 1900s, she resided in Chengdu, the current capital of Sichuan Province. 

It all started on a rainy night when a wealthy businessman came to her door to seek shelter from the storm. She was delighted to have a visitor and quickly ransacked her sparse kitchen cupboard and put together a meal that included tofu and pork. After tasting her savory dish, the visitor was so impressed that he sent additional travelers in the direction of Ma Po’s Tofu. She is said to have finally set up a roadside food business on the outskirts of town called Chen Ma Po, do meet the demands of hungry travelers. There is a now a tofu restaurant bearing the same name.

Beef Ma po tofu recipe

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 200g minced beef
  • 1  clove garlic, chopped
  • 2 spring onions, white section sliced into thin strips
  • ​ 2 tbsp chili bean sauce
  • 125ml fresh chicken stock
  • 1 tsp Shaoxing cooking wine
  • 1 tsp light soy sauce
  • ½ tsp dark soy sauce
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 300g silken tofu, cut into 2cm cubes
  • pinch Sichuan pepper
  • ½ tsp sesame oil

Method

1. Heat a wok over high heat until smoking.

2. Add the vegetable oil

3. Add minced beef and stir-fry until browned for around 3 minutes.

4. Add the garlic, spring onion whites, and bean sauce

5. Stir until fragrant,  for around 30 seconds.

6. Add the stock, Shaoxing cooking wine, soy sauces, sugar, and salt.

7. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer, allowing the liquid to thicken for about 6-8 minutes.

8. Remove from heat.

9. Add tofu, Sichuan pepper, and sesame oil and combine.

 Garnish with chopped spring onion greens and serve. 

In place of beef, minced chicken, pork, duck, shrimp, or mushrooms may be substituted. The spicy peppers along with the mild tofu will enhance any flavor combination.