Mapo tofu is a dish that, in many ways, defies classification or explanation. It is, in a sense, rather familiar, appearing on countless restaurant menus and home tables alike. And yet, its combination of soft tofu, ground pork, and a flavorful (but endlessly variable) sauce is rather unlike the image that many westerners have of “Chinese” food. Despite this, it is in many ways an ideal dish to learn, adapt, and make your own; rather like a Chinese version of meatloaf, it invites adaptation and branding by the home cook.
The name, as is often pointed out, seems a bit bizarre at first blush – literally translated, mapo is a truncation of mázi pópo (麻子婆婆), which more or less means “pockmarked old woman.” So this is the tofu of a pockmarked old woman. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Basically, the dish is meant to honor the original old granny who first made it (or best made it) in Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan, China). To further clarify, it’s not at all uncommon (or impolite) to assign nicknames in Chinese culture based on physical attributes that westerners might find a little gauche; Chinese nicknames frequently feature monikers like ‘fat’ or ‘old’.
As with a great many dishes from Sichuan, mapo tofu is notorious for its fiery heat. This heat in this version would be unlikely to satisfy the taste buds of Chengdu, but it’s got just enough heat to keep me happy. That being said, feel free to up the ante with more chilies and/or a particularly hot doubanjiang.
And speaking of doubanjiang, there are couple of things to note about the ingredients in this recipe. First, doubanjiang, or spicy bean paste, is an irreplaceable condiment (and staple of the Chinese cupboard) that you should be able to track down at any Asian grocer. It comes in spicy and non-spicy versions, and I encourage you to explore a few different varieties over time to find your favorite. If you absolutely must substitute it, try tomato paste and use less ketchup. Second… yes, ketchup. Before you go and call out sacrilege in the comments section, ketchup is actually a relatively common ingredient in many Chinese dishes, and you can even find less-sweet Chinese versions of it (and no-sugar-added Western versions). But at the end of the day, I like the slightly sweet, vinegary hit that ketchup adds to this dish. And hey, if you don’t like it… well, you feel free to take mapo tofu and make it your own.
The fat content is moderate, and can be reduced by making a vegetarian version (remove the ground pork) or by using a lean meat like ground turkey.
No Ingredient Pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
*Note – As with a LOT of recipes using Chinese ingredients, whether or not this is wheat/gluten-free will depend on the sauces you choose. GF oyster-flavoured sauce is fairly common, while doubanjiang is all over the place in terms of ingredients, including wheat.
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