Sauce that's deeply savory, spicy, and rich
Tofu that stays intact
Spicy, rich, and savory, mapo tofu is the most renowned dish from China’s Sichuan province and serves as comfort food for chili fans everywhere. But even die-hard fans tend to order it in restaurants rather than make it at home. Perhaps they imagine that making something so deeply flavorful would take a long time and many steps. But in fact, mapo tofu—soft cubes of tofu and a modest amount of ground beef or pork swimming in a glossy red sauce with loads of garlic and ginger, multiple fermented bean seasonings, numbing Sichuan peppercorns, and fiery Sichuan chili powder—is fast and easy to make. And despite its many flavorful ingredients, the dish blends them all into a harmonious whole that is spicy but never overwhelming and entirely satisfying when ladled over heaps of steamed white rice.
Traditionally, the first step is to simmer or steep cubes of tofu in hot salted water or broth. Experts say that this step firms the tofu so it holds its shape during braising. Meanwhile, ground beef or pork (recipes use either, though beef is traditional and is what I chose) is cooked in a pot or wok until it begins to brown and is then set aside. Next, minced garlic, ginger, Asian broad bean chili paste, Sichuan peppercorns, Sichuan chili powder, and fermented black beans (more on these ingredients later) are sizzled in oil. Some recipes also call for drizzling in Sichuan chili oil for yet another layer of fiery flavor; others add sweetness via hoisin sauce or sugar. Once the oil has taken on a deep red color from the chili powder, the browned meat is returned to the pot along with the tofu and its simmering liquid and scallions (or leeks). The mixture braises for a few minutes until the tofu starts to absorb the flavor of the sauce. Finally, a cornstarch slurry is stirred in to add body before the tofu is served with a garnish of toasted, ground Sichuan peppercorns for a final layer of floral, citrusy, buzzing crunch.
My first task was figuring out what kind of tofu to use. Styles differ mainly in how thoroughly the soybean curds have been drained and pressed to remove moisture and firm up their structure. The best texture for mapo tofu, I found, is one that holds its shape when cubed yet is still soft and custard-like.
After buying out the tofu section at the supermarket, I found two styles to avoid. Undrained “silken” tofu is usually so fragile that it falls apart with the slightest disturbance, producing a gloppy dish, while “extra-firm” tofu typically has a dense, bouncy texture and doesn’t absorb the flavors of the sauce. I got the best results with the kind of tofu typically labeled “soft.” (I also learned that tofu classification is a nebulous thing; there are no industry standards.)
As for how to prepare the tofu, simmering or steeping it in hot salted water was essential to getting its texture right. Heat shrinks the proteins in the outer layers of the cubes, tightening them and helping them stay intact during cooking while still allowing for a yielding, custardy texture. To simplify the process, I microwaved the tofu and water until the water was steaming. I also used this as an opportunity to gently wilt the scallions. Chicken broth and salted water worked equally well to set the tofu, but ultimately I liked the depth that broth contributed.
Sourcing Bold Flavor
As a contrast to the neutral, clean-tasting tofu, the sauce should be deeply savory, spicy, and rich. That meant using plenty of garlic (nine cloves) and ginger (a 3-inch knob), along with four Chinese pantry staples: Asian broad bean chili paste, Sichuan peppercorns, Sichuan chili powder, and fermented black beans. The broad bean chili paste (doubanjiang) lends the dish tremendous savory depth for which there is no substitute. Since some chili bean pastes are a little too coarse to use straight from the jar, and because I needed to mince lots of garlic and ginger, I whizzed everything with the oil in a food processor to form a smooth paste.
Sichuan peppercorns are nutty, floral, and citrusy and deliver a pleasant (and temporary), mild tingling sensation. I found that toasting them in the microwave drew out their robust personality. Sichuan chili powder packs heat and subtle fruitiness, and fermented black beans provide salty umami flavor.
Finally, I liked how a bit of sugar helped round out the flavors of the dish, but I preferred hoisin sauce—yet another fermented bean product, this one made from soybeans—because it contributed another layer of complexity in addition to sweetness.
Lastly, mapo tofu should contain a good amount of oil—that’s why it’s rich and always served with plenty of rice. But instead of buying chili oil, which is traditionally prepared by steeping dried red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns in very hot oil, straining them out, and adding a little toasted sesame oil, I realized I could re-create its flavor and red glow by simply increasing the amounts of Sichuan chili powder, Sichuan peppercorns, and vegetable oil in my recipe and incorporating a few teaspoons of sesame oil.
And there I had it: a version of mapo tofu that was bold, intricately seasoned, and as fiery as it was satisfying. Plus, now that I had the Sichuan staples on hand, I could quickly throw this dish together any night of the week.