If you have ever heard about my hometown Szechuan, there is a 99.9% probability that you would relate it with spicy food. Apart from the famous Szechuan Hotpot, with loads of chilli floating on the surface, Mapo Tofu is irresistible if you fancy spicy food. It is also a perfect vegetarian or vegan choice if you add no mince into it. There are several variations of Mapo Tofu, including a Japanese version, which is well known as one of the spiciest meals there.
‘Mapo Tofu’ is named after an old lady, nicknamed ‘Mapo’ (‘an old woman with pockmarked face’ in Chinese) in Szechuan who owned a small and inconspicuous restaurant. She cooked extremely delicious tofu with chilli and beef, which then became popular by word of mouth, and is now well known all over the world.
In my hometown, Mapo Tofu is famous for the ‘numbness’ feeling in your mouth, instead of ‘spicy’. This special feeling, which is coincidentally referred to as ‘Ma’ as well, is caused by Szechuan peppers. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, “they produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electric current”. Anyway, you will discover the mystery if you have a try!
The red colour and spicy taste mainly comes from Pixian bean sauce and chilli powder, which can be easily found in Chinese supermarkets in Chinatown. Pixian bean sauce is widely used in Szechuan cuisine. It is a spicy and salty paste made from fermented broad beans, red peppers, and various spices.
For me, rice is without question the best companion to Mapo Tofu. (It’s even better to mix this dish in with rice). Don’t worry if you can’t handle spicy food very well, simply add as much or as little Pixian bean sauce or chilli powder as you like and you’ll get a personalised edition of Mapo Tofu.
- 500g tofu
- 2-3 spring onions
- 15-20g Pixian bean sauce
- Chilli powder (as much as you like)
- 3g Szechuan pepper
- 50g beef mince (you can substitute pork mince instead)
- Starch (ideally potato starch)
These amounts are for reference, but you can alter them as you like to your personal taste.
- Frying pan (deep enough to contain the tofu)
- Wooden spoon
- Cut tofu into small cubes, around 2cm in length.
- Chop the spring onions into small segments.
- Chop the beans and chilli skins in the Pixian Bean Sauce (to make the dish look better).
- Add a pinch of salt into the mince, stirring the mince to make sure it’s well blended.
- Dissolve 25g of starch into water, normally 1:1.5 starch to water by volume. (You may need to remix it again before addition since it is an unstable turbid liquid.)
- Add oil to a frying pan and heat it. Add enough to cover the base of the frying pan, more according to your personal liking. With too little oil, the mince will not be fragrant and crispy enough. Too much may make it greasy and unhealthy as well.
- When the smoke of the oil rises, add the mince. Stir fry the mince until the colour turns golden brown. Make sure the heat is not too high and stir it frequently.
- Add in Pixian bean sauce and Szechuan pepper. Stir fry the mixture. Check the colour of the oil – hopefully it will turn red!
- Add in the tofu, chilli powder, and the boiling water. Enough water is needed to cover 3⁄4 the height of the tofu. Boiling water in the kettle saves lots of time!
- Wait until only half of the tofu is submerged in water. Pour in half of the starch water. You can do this by slowly pouring the starch water along the circumference of the pan. Wait for another five minutes and add the remaining starch water.
- Taste the tofu and sprinkle over the green onions. It’s up to you when you want to stop heating. Personally, I would turn off the heat early and utilise the surplus heat for a minute or two.
- Done! Get your rice, mix them up, and bon appétit!