Spicy mapo tofu is one of the classics of the real local Chinese cuisine. Available almost everywhere in China, this fiery dish is coming from the province of Sichuan, famous for its spicy fare and Sichuan peppercorns. These little peppercorns add a lot of aroma and, when biting on them, a tingling and slightly numbing sensation on your tongue. In Sichuan, they are usually paired with chilies or chili powder. So they are in spicy mapo tofu, which is definitely one of my favourite Chinese meals!
Tofu with its plain taste is great for a meal like this one, because it can absorb all sorts of flavours. Even when bathed in this spicy sauce, it is still fairly mild and thus complementing the chilies.
“Mapo Tofu” for some odd reason literally means “pockmarked old woman beancurd”. Many Chinese dishes have flowery names, rooted somewhere in their long history. This one in real life has nothing to do with pockmarks, is eaten by young and old, and fairly easy to make. Apart from Sichuan peppercorns, you don’t even need a whole lot of exotic ingredients. Even the amount of chopping you need to do is limited for Chinese cuisine standards. If you love spicy food, you will love this dish.
A word on the ingredients
The tofu you use can be firm or soft – both are used in China to make mapo tofu. Just be extra careful when using the soft stuff because it is quite delicate and can easily disintegrate when stirred too heavily.
One thing central to this traditional dish is its amazing spice level. The people of Sichuan a famous for their love of chilies and Sichuan pepper. In the summer, they slurp cold rice noodles topped with spoonfuls of chopped chilies and not much else. In the winter, chili-infused steam evaporates from small roadside restaurants serving hot pot – a shared dinner where patrons cook vegetables, meat, fish balls or tofu in a broth full of chilies and Sichuan pepper. Nothing here can be TOO spicy – just too bland.
So when cooking this dish, you can go all out native Sichuanese and use 10 chilies, a tablespoon of Sichuan pepper and a heaped spoonful of chili paste. This is usually too much for anyone from outside this Chinese province. During our many years in China, our tolerance and love for spiciness grew a lot over time. But, no, we do not use 10 chilies for mapo tofu! This recipe therefore suggests a more moderate spiciness – so if you are all in for burning tastebuds, spice it up! But be careful and try first before adding too much chili or chili paste.
What’s the spice
For this dish, Sichuan people use dried chilies rather than fresh ones. De-seed chilies if you prefer a somewhat reduced heat. The seeds carry a large share of the chili’s spiciness. If you use the seeds, your tofu will thus be a lot spicier than without the seeds. Dried chilis are available in Asia supermarkets and can be stored in your pantry for a long time when kept dry.
The chili paste is for taste as well as red colour. This paste also contains salt, so be careful when seasoning. Actually, if you can get your hands on chili bean paste, grab it! This is the really authentic stuff, and it can be hard to find. It contains slightly salted black beans which give the dish an additional zing. But if not available, traditional red chili paste does the trick as well.
Sichuan pepper, as already mentioned, is essential for spicy mapo tofu. It is widely available in Asian groceries in the West. There are two different kinds – a red one and a greenish-blackish version. Only the black Sichuan pepper creates the tingling that we are looking for. So I recommend you to use this one.
Soy sauce is a central ingredient in Chinese cooking to give it the distinct tangy flavour and a bit of colour. It is often used not as replacement of salt but as additional ingredient. Soy sauce contains a bit of gluten, so use the Japanese soy sauce tamari as a gluten-free alternative. It is darker, less salty, and has a strong umami flavor. Start with a tablespoon as described in the recipe for soy sauce. Taste the tofu and add a bit more if you would like to add more flavour.
We fry our Chinese spicy tofu with rapeseed oil. But many locals use homemade pork lard and swear it tastes even better. If you like that idea, just try it, using the same amount as for the oil.
I also use minced beef instead of the traditional pork. Feel free to replace beef with minced pork if you prefer that.
You can easily change this spicy mapo tofu recipe into a vegetarian/vegan meal. Just exchange the beef for the same amount of vegan mince or finely cut brown mushrooms, such as shiitake mushrooms. You can prepare the dish in the same way as described in the recipe. Just sub the vegan options for the meat.
How to serve mapo tofu
Serve your Chinese mapo tofu with cauliflower rice. Zip on a beer or plenty of lemon-infused soda water to wash down the spice!
Spicy mapo tofu can be a standalone dish as much as part of a larger dinner with several shared dishes. That is how Chinese families eat their meals. They place several dishes in the middle of their table, while everyone receives a bowl of rice. Then, all diners help themselves from the shared plates.
What kind of dish could you serve this spicy, tangy, saucy tofu dish along with? It goes perfectly well with clean, crunchy, healthy Asian vegetable sides, for example my stir-fried broccoli with garlic or fried bok choy as in this recipe from blog downshiftology. Or you pair mapo tofu with more Sichuan fare by serving it with another local favourite, Kung Pao chicken! Enjoy!
Spicy tofu from China! Soft and delicious tofu cubes immersed in a fiery sauce full of chili, Sichuan pepper and a little bit of minced beef.
Serving 2 as a full meal or more as part of a Chinese dinner with several shared dishes
400g tofu, cubed
50g minced beef (you can also use pork)
1–2 tsp chili paste (or chili bean paste if available) – use smaller amount for a milder flavour, and more if you like it really spicy
1–2 mid-sized dried chilies, finely chopped – use smaller amount for a milder spiciness or more if you like it fiery hot. De-seed chilies for reduced heat; if you use the seeds, your tofu will be a lot spicier than without the seeds.
1 garlic clove, sliced
1 inch fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns (preferably the greenish-black kind)
1–2 sprigs of spring onion, chopped – white and green parts separated
1 tsp dark soy sauce or tamari
rapeseed oil for frying
water to add to the sauce and to boil the tofu
- Put oil to medium heat in a wok, and quickly fry the Sichuan peppercorns and chilies until fragrant. This will be quick, so be careful not to burn them. Set aside to cool.
- Swipe the wok clean and bring salted water to the boil on medium heat. You need enough water to cover the tofu cubes. Carefully slip in the tofu cubes and cook them for 2-3 minutes. If they aren’t covered by the water, add a little bit more. Do not cook the tofu for too long! Drain and set aside.
- Dry the wok and put it on low heat, adding oil. Put in the ginger, garlic, white parts of spring onion and minced meat with a pinch of salt. Stir-fry for a few minutes. Then, gently shove the mix up the sides of your wok to form an empty circle in the middle. Add another dollop of oil into the empty circle. Once it’s hot, put your chili paste into this oil and stir for 10-20 seconds. Then swirl the paste into the mix and add your previously fried Sichuan pepper and chilies. Mix everything well and keep the heat low.
- Stir in about 100ml of water and then add the tofu cubes to the wok. Stir a bit and add a teaspoon of soy sauce or tamari.
- Bring to the boil again briefly and then immediately reduce the heat. Keep simmering tofu a short while. Add more water if the mix gets too dry. You will want to retain a little bit of saucy liquid. Taste it and add a bit more soy sauce if you need more umami. Done!
- Fill tofu into a deep serving plate and sprinkle with green parts of your spring onion. Serve with cauliflower rice.
Sub beef for the same amount of vegan mince or finely chopped brown mushrooms for a plant-based meal! Prepare it in exactly the same fashion by adding the mushrooms when you’d otherwise add the meat.
- Category: meals
- Method: stir fry and simmer
- Cuisine: Chinese
- Serving Size: 1 portion
- Calories: 350
- Fat: 25.7g
- Carbohydrates: 8.3g net carbs
- Protein: 24.1g