Mapo tofu is an iconic Sichuan pork and tofu stir-fry that’s bursting with heat, spice and aroma. Generous spoonfuls of doubanjiang (hot broad bean paste) and freshly toasted ground peppercorns add bold and robust flavours.
Mapo tofu is an instantly recognisable icon of Chinese Sichuan cuisine that it really needs no introduction.
It is a hearty and wholesome dish of stir-fried minced pork and tofu, braised in a chilli bean sauce spiced with loads of Sichuan peppercorns.
We love eating mapo tofu with rice alone, because this dish is so full of flavour! This is one of our family’s absolute favourites. It goes pretty quickly between hubs and I!
And the wonderful thing is it’s so easy and quick to cook mapo tofu at home. From start to finish, it takes just under half an hour.
Which makes it a great option for days when I feel like I can only manage one quick meal. The bonus? You’re getting loads of good protein in one dish!
What does mapo tofu taste like?
If you’ve spoken with die-hard fans of mapo tofu, you’ll certainly have an impression that they enjoy it for its spicy and even mouth-numbing sensation! So be forewarned!
Mapo tofu should be spicy with lots of heat, a little on the salty side, and distinctively savoury with a bold and unbelievable flavour!
The mouth feel of mapo tofu should be smooth, with tender tofu and juicy meat enveloping your mouth with a numbing, tingling sensation.
Surprisingly, it can grow on you very quickly and I find it even somewhat addictive!
The combination of chilli bean paste and chilli oil, both of which are the real sources of spicy heat in mapo tofu, with the tingly buzz of Sichuan peppercorns makes this an unforgettable eating experience!
Mapo tofu recipes are as varied as they are many. Every Chinese household has their treasured mapo tofu recipes handed down by the cooks in the family.
Each, with varied nuances in flavour created by using favoured bean pastes, sauces, and seasonings in their preferred proportions.
Here, I’m sharing our family version which is made deliberately less spicy. I use a tablespoon of whole Sichuan peppercorns, freshly toasted and ground, and just 1 tbsp of chilli oil.
Already, it cuts through the sauce and gives the dish just enough heat and zing! Of course, you take the heat up a couple of notches to your liking!
Traditionally, mapo tofu is cooked with ground beef, but I’ve always favoured pork. I like cooking with fatty ground pork because its more tender and succulent.
A little fat goes a long way to making your mapo tofu all the more delicious. Do feel free to cook this with whichever meat you prefer, ground pork, beef or chicken.
While most mapo tofu dishes are always cooked with meat and bean curd, there are also meatless versions prepared with seafood, like fresh shelled prawns.
Vegetarian versions include an all-tofu mapo prepared with soy bean curd or egg tofu.
Ingredients for mapo tofu
Here are the ingredients you will need to prepare mapo tofu:
- Soft (silken) tofu or regular tofu
- Ground pork
- Sichuan peppercorns
- Spring onions
- Corn starch slurry for thickening
- Chilli bean paste (doubanjiang)
- Dark soy sauce
- Light soy sauce
- Chinese wine
- Sesame oil
- Chilli oil
- Chicken stock (I use chicken seasoning powder for instant stock)
Step-by-step: How to cook mapo tofu
First, prep all the ingredients.
When you start firing up the wok, you’re going to need all your ingredients at hand and ready because the cooking part is pretty quick! The key to Chinese stir-fries is preparation!
- Season the pork. In a small bowl, season ground pork with light soy sauce, Chinese wine and sesame oil. Set it aside to sit.
- Chop ingredients and prepare sauces and stock. Finely chop garlic, ginger, spring onions and dice the tofu. Prepare chicken stock, and measure out all the sauce and seasonings.
- Toast and grind the peppercorns. In a wok or pan, dry fry the Sichuan peppercorns over low-medium heat until brown and aromatic, about 2 minutes. Remove and grind in a mortar with a pestle. Set aside.
Now, we’re ready to start cooking!
Next, let’s cook mapo tofu!
- Step 1. Heat up 2 tbsp oil in a wok over high heat. When oil is very hot, stir fry the seasoned pork until browned. Use your wok chan or spatula to cut into the pork to separate chunks into smaller pieces.
- Step 2. Add dark soy sauce and continue to stir fry until juices evaporate and oils remain. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon.
- Step 3. To the hot oil left in the wok, add garlic, ginger and 1/2 of chopped spring onions. Stir fry until fragrant, about 10 seconds.
- Step 4. Add the doubanjiang and 1/2 of ground Sichuan peppercorns. Stir fry to mix well, about 10 seconds.
- Step 5. Add chicken stock, Chinese wine, and sugar.
- Step 6. Bring to a boil, then add the tofu (drain away excess water) and cooked pork. Stir around in the wok once or twice to spread out tofu and pork to braise in the sauce. Return to a boil, then reduce heat to let the mixture simmer. Important! Do not stir the tofu frequently once spread, to prevent it from breaking up too much.
- Step 7. Let simmer for 5 minutes or until sauce is reduced by 1/4. Don’t skip this! Simmering allows the tofu to soak in all the flavours of the sauce for more umami!
- Step 8. Gently stir in the corn starch solution, and simmer until sauce thickens. Do a taste test. Add salt or sugar, as desired.
Dish out the mapo tofu onto a serving plate. Drizzle over with chilli oil (optional, but highly recommended!).
Sprinkle remaining Sichuan peppercorns. Garnish with remaining chopped spring onions, and serve immediately.
1. Using a good quality chilli bean paste (doubanjiang)
This is a salty chilli bean paste made predominantly from fermented broad beans, soy beans, salt, rice as well as various spices.
It goes by various names including hot broad bean paste, fermented chilli bean sauce, and Sichuan chilli bean sauce. Look for these Chinese characters 豆瓣酱, if you’re unsure of the English labels.
Invest in a good quality Pixian doubanjiang, especially if you’re going to be cooking lots of Sichuan food. It makes all the difference in flavour! I’ve experimented with doubanjiang sourced from Malaysia, Singapore and China.
Not surprisingly, doubanjiang manufactured in Sichuan, China, are the ones that give the best flavour to my mapo tofu.
It is doubanjiang that creates the heat in mapo tofu. Be aware that these bean pastes vary in their saltiness and pungency.
Taste a bit before using it in your cooking, so you can adjust how much you want to add, and also how much salt (if needed) and sugar to add. Normally, I use between 1 1/2 – 2 tbsp per dish.
2. Sichuan peppercorns
Use whole Sichuan peppercorns wherever possible. When cooking with meat, use the red variety.
To bring out their potency and flavour, toast these peppercorns in a pan until they brown and release their aroma.
Then grind to a coarse powder with a pestle in a mortar, or in a spice grinder. There really isn’t any comparable substitute for Sichuan peppercorns.
3. Chilli oil
In addition to doubanjiang, chilli oil takes the heat up a notch when added to your mapo tofu dish.
These days, you can easily find chilli oil at Asian grocers and supermarkets, or order online.
But it’s also easy to make your own. Here is a homemade chilli oil recipe if you’re interested.
4. Choosing tofu
Most often, soft (silken) tofu or regular tofu is recommended for mapo tofu. That’s because soft tofu easily soaks up the flavours of sauces and broths.
Look for bean curd packages labelled soft, silken (referring to Japanese soft bean curd), or those described as ideal for soups or steaming.
If you find soft tofu too fragile to handle, you can use medium tofu. Soft tofu has a high water content.
To prevent the water releasing during the cooking process, you can dice the tofu, but keeping it in its block shape.
Place a light saucer on top, and let it sit for half an hour. Drain away as much of the excess water, before tipping into the wok.
Alternatively, after dicing, you can boil in simmering hot water in a saucepan for a few minutes. But this is just an extra hassle I’d like to avoid! I’m lazy that way!
5. Choice of meat
Ground pork with a little fat is more tender and tasty, but I tend to use lean pork more often these days for a healthier dish. Feel free to substitute with ground beef or chicken.
Here are more recipes to inspire your next meal:
- Steamed Pork Ribs with Salted Black Beans
- Steamed Eggs with Spicy Bean Paste
- French Beans Stir-fried with Minced Pork in Soy Bean Paste
- Steamed Minced Pork with Water Chestnut
- Gong Bao Chicken (Çhicken Fried with Dried Chillies)