What I Realized From Loving Mapo Tofu
Anyone who says tofu is boring or boring has not eaten Mapo Tofu, the intoxicatingly spicy, fragrant dish from the Chinese province of Sichuan.
Unlike the mellow Vietnamese tofu dishes I grew up on in Southern California, “Mapo”, as some casually say, caught my attention as a teenager in the early 1980s when my father and his buddy – whom we always reverently Mr. . Lee – let me come over to lunch at a Chinese restaurant. While the adults talked, I ate as much of the tender diced tofu and the savory meat sauce as I could without looking porky.
I was more than enthusiastic about the slippery brow wiper who, as a teenager, researched library books, traveled to Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan province and birthplace of the court) to understand its origins and later to experiment with it in my own kitchen.
Mapo Tofu is sometimes translated as “an old woman’s pockmarked bean curd”. (In Chinese, “ma” refers to smallpox scars and “po” refers to an older woman.) The name is an inelegant allusion to Ms. Chen’s smallpox-scarred skin, who is believed to have invented the dish in the late 19th century Her family’s restaurant in northern Chengdu.
As the story goes, porters hauling oil to market visited their facility and one day they requested an affordable dish made from tofu and meat made with some of the oil they carried. Ms. Chen flavored her creation with Sichuan staples, and it became a hit that only grew in popularity over time.
When I finally visited Chengdu in 2010, decades after my first taste of Mapo Tofu, I knew I wanted to try a version that came as close as possible to Ms. Chen’s. Her restaurant no longer exists in its original form, but I went to Chen Mapo Tofu in the hope that his recipe really came from her, as some have claimed. My travel companions and I sat in the restaurant and waited eagerly for real Mapo tofu. Finally, tofu and lumps of meat emerged from under a thick layer of fiery red oil and lots of huajiao, or tingling Sichuan peppercorn. But surprisingly, it lacked the savory depth I expected from its central flavoring, a fermented chili bean paste known as doubanjiang.
To deepen my understanding of Doubanjiang, I contacted Yu Bo, an internationally renowned Sichuan cook from Chengdu, who organized a visit to a centuries-old producer in Pixian, a suburb of Chengdu. There, in a walled facility the size of a baseball diamond, were rows of large lidded urns filled with intoxicating chillies and broad beans fermenting in the sun. I peeked in and inhaled the coarse, dark red mixture as I thought about my next Mapo.
I met Pay Dirt when Zhong Yi, a PhD student at Sichuan University, invited me and my companions to celebrate her family’s Mid-Autumn Festival. Her grandmother led the activities, practicing and optimizing quietly while everyone crawled around in the kitchen. The family made a dozen dishes, including a mapo tofu that was not as oily or fiery as Chen Mapo tofu’s.
They had also cooked extra beef, seasoned with doubanjiang and the other ingredients of Mapo – everything but the tofu – and towards the end of the meal, Zhong Yi’s aunt made a 13th dish by spooning the beef onto angel-haired wheat noodles and cheerfully calling it “quick dan dan noodles. “This playful gesture was a lasting lesson in Mapo Tofu’s potential.
For the past 10 years I have thought about family improvisation and the culinary elasticity of Mapo, but having no Chinese heritage and no strong connection with Sichuan, I haven’t deviated from the traditional recipe that is an integral part of my job was repertoire.
Last year I tried a Mapo Tofu Lasagna from Chef Mei Lin at Nightshade in Los Angeles and read about Yu Bo’s Mapo Tofu with Avocado. Only then could I experiment. I swirled a tub of silky tofu and then cooked it for a few minutes along with the fermented ingredients. Together they became a creamy sauce that expressed Mapo’s essence in a slightly milder form. It was perfect for spaghetti.
Still there was sauce left over. Its funky seasoning inspired quesolike ideas, so I served it with tortilla chips. The crunch of the chip complemented the boldness of Mapo Tofu well. Finally, I used the sauce for excellent mapo nachos, which I embellished with processed cheese, pickled jalapeños, olives and coriander.
Who would have thought that such a simple dish could spark nearly 40 years of fascination, dare I say obsession? Mapo Tofu got me on the first bite, and while I’ll always appreciate its roots, the crafting turned out to be so delicious.