Real Deal Sichuan Mapo Tofu
Mapo Tofu (má pó dòu fǔ) is a classic 四川 Sìchuān dish that appears on nearly every Chinese restaurant menu around the world. This hot, spicy, mouthwatering tofu dish is named after its inventor, known as 陈麻婆 Chén Má Pó “Pockmarked Lady Chen”. This is another famouse Chinese dish with a long and storied history. She created this dish of soft tofu and ground beef for her restaurant in 成都 Chéngdū in 1862. It became a hit across China almost immediately, and her original restaurant is still popular seven generations later!
Classic Sichuan Flavors
Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐 embodies the ideals of Sichuan cuisine with bold flavors and amazing textural contrast. If you like spice, there’s no better dish to serve atop a bowl of steaming white rice.
- 麻 (má) – numbing from the 花椒 Sichuan peppercorns, as in Sichuan cuisine’s characteristic 麻辣 (má là). (It’s the same character, but the 麻 in 麻婆 Mápó is actually referring to Chef Chen’s pockmarked face!)
- 辣 (là) – spicy from the dried red peppers
- 鲜 (xiān) – umami or savoriness from 郫县豆瓣 Píxiàn broad bean paste
- 香 (xiāng) – fragrant
- 烫 (tàng) – hot (temperature hot)
- 翠 (cuì) – bright green from the garlic scapes 蒜苗 (suàn miáo)
- 酥 (sū) – crispy from the crispy ground beef
- 嫩 (nèn) – tender from the silken tofu
Most mapo tofus you’ll find online or in restaurants are toned down, goopy, and uninspiring. But with just a few authentic Sichuan ingredients, mostly from my essential ingredients series, you’re well on your way to real-deal mapo tofu at home.
My recipe is based on the original recipe with inspiration drawn from famous Sichuan chefs and State banquet master chefs. I promise once you’ve tried it my way, you’ll never crave mapo tofu delivery again.
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Mapo tofu is spicy. There’s no way to avoid the spice altogether, so if you’re looking for tofu without heat, I recommend checking out my also delicious 家常豆腐 Home-style Tofu instead.
To make authentic mapo tofu, there are a few key pantry ingredients that are irreplaceable. Fortunately, I’ve found most of them for you online:
- 2 tsp Pixian chili broad bean paste 郫县豆瓣酱 (Píxiàn dòubàn jiàng): a red, savory, umami-ful fermented paste of chilies and broad beans that gives mapo tofu a certain je ne sais quo. It’s not mapo tofu without pixian douban. The most famous brand is 鹃城 Juān Chéng, founded in 1668.
- 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns 花椒 (huā jiāo): numbing spice
- 10-15 dried red chili peppers 干辣椒 (gān là jiāo): heat
- 1 Tbsp red chili powder 辣椒面 (là jiāo miàn):heat and color
- or substitute: Korean gochugaru chili powder / kashmiri chili powder / any red chili powder
- make your own by grinding dried red chilies in a spice grinder
- 1 tsp fermented black beans 豆豉 (dòu chǐ): (optional) amp up the savory flavor
- 1 box (~16 oz) silken tofu 嫩豆腐 (nèn dòu fǔ): silken for the best texture, cut into 1 inch = 2.5 cm cubes
- you need the kind that comes in a refrigerated box, not a tube
- firm tofu 老豆腐 or soft tofu 滑豆腐 also work
- 4 oz ground beef 碎牛肉 (suì niú ròu): with some fat is best, like 80/20
- 2 large garlic scapes 蒜苗 (suàn miáo): substitute 1 leek or 3 scallions
- 1.5 cups stock 高汤 (gāo tāng): or Better than Bouillon (chicken) diluted to 1/2 strength
- 1 Tbsp Shaoxing cooking wine 绍兴花雕酒: to deglaze the pan and balance the beef flavor
- 1 tsp dark soy sauce 老抽酱油: color and flavor
- 1 tsp minced ginger 姜末: freshness reduces gamey-ness
- 0.5 tsp sugar 白糖: balances and highlights umami
- 1 Tbsp corn starch 玉米淀粉: thickens the mapo tofu sauce, or use potato starch
Equipment & Technique 厨具及技巧
In 家常豆腐 Home-style Tofu, I talked about the different types of tofu and how firm tofu is the easiest to cook for beginners. But with a few smart yet budget-friendly equipment choices plus a technique secret, it’s possible to make soft, tender silken tofu cubes that absorb a ton of flavor but still hold together.
- a wok with lid: The wide, sloped sides of a wok are key here both to stirring the tofu without breakage and quickly reducing the sauce. If you don’t have a wok, now is the time to buy one. I recommend carbon steel because it’s safe for screaming high heat, nonstick, and induction-friendly.
- wok spoon / wood spatula: No sharp edges to prevent tofu breakage. We’ll use the back of the spoon or spatula to gently push the tofu
- spider strainer: Drain the tofu without breakage
The secret technique to cooking perfect cubes of silken tofu is two-fold. First, 焯水(chāo shuǐ) blanching cubed silken tofu in salted water helps draw out some of the moisture so the tofu holds its shape. We drop the tofu in when the water is barely simmering, and let it boil for just 90 seconds. This is enough for the silken tofu to remain tender and melty without bubbles. Second, to stir the pot, push gently with the spatula scraping along the pan. Start from the side of the pan to push the tofu aside. We never want to shovel, flip, or poke the tofu.
How to Make Authentic Mapo Tofu 正宗麻婆豆腐的步骤
If you’re using silken tofu (you should!) 烧嫩豆腐的重要秘诀：焯盐水
Silken tofu 嫩豆腐 is a little bit tricky to work with at first. The hardest part is really getting it out of the box. I recommend cutting it in the box with a paring knife, inverting the box so most of the pieces fall out, and then slicing those pieces in half to form cubes. The tofu will often stick to the side of the box, but be patient. It’s worth it!
Heat ~8 cups water and 0.5 tsp of salt on medium high (360°F = 7.0 on Duxtop induction). When the water is almost simmering (about 200°F = 90°C), gently add the cubed tofu. After the water comes to a rolling boil, let the tofu cubes cook for 90 seconds, and then remove them from the water using a spider strainer to drain.
This is secret to perfectly tender silken tofu that won’t crumble! Do not skip this step! Otherwise, instead of yummy tofu cubes you can pick up with chopsticks, you’ll end up with sad, soupy scrambled tofu.
Crispy beef bits 牛肉酥
While the blanching water is boiling, soak dried red chilies in warm water for 5 minutes to soften. Soaking the peppers prevents them from burning. Make sure the chili peppers are well-drained to reduce oil splatter. Heat your wok to low heat (240°F = 4.0). Toast the dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns in 1 tsp of cooking oil until crispy. Crush them with a bench scraper or the side of a Chinese cleaver, and set aside for later use.
Add 2 Tbsp of oil to the wok, and stir fry the ground beef until the oil turns from cloudy (indicating moisture) to clear. Add in the minced ginger and toss well to combine. We’re looking for golden and crispy beef bits; these are the 酥 crispy texture in the dish! Add the pixian broad bean paste 郫县豆瓣酱 to the beef, and stir fry until the chili oil renders out. The mixture should be a brilliant red color.
Cook the tofu in brilliant red broth 红油加高汤，大火沸腾
At this point, add in the fermented black beans 豆豉 along with 2/3 of the chopped red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns and toss well to combine. We’ll deglaze the pan with Shaoxing cooking wine, then add the dark soy sauce, sugar, stock, and red chili powder. Turn the heat up to high (390°F = 8.0 ) and bring the liquid to a simmer. Slide the tofu cubes into the spicy red broth. We’re going to keep the liquid at a rolling boil to help the tofu absorb all that delicious flavor. Boil with the lid on. Timing depends on the type of tofu you use:
- silken tofu 嫩豆腐: 7 – 10 minutes
- soft tofu 滑豆腐: 15 – 18 minutes
- firm tofu 老豆腐: 23 – 27 minutes (use a little extra stock to keep it from drying out)
We want to stir the tofu a few times while it’s cooking so that the flavor absorbs evenly. I find a wooden spatula to be easiest for this, or the back of a wok spoon is also a good choice. Starting with your spatula above the level of the tofu and flush against the side of the pan, gently push the spatula all the way across the pan and back up the other side of the wok. Keep the edge of the spatula flush against the pan at all times to keep it from cutting the tofu cubes.
Third time’s the charm: How to achieve perfectly saucy mapo tofu 三次勾芡
While the tofu is boiling away, cut the garlic scapes 蒜苗 or scallions into 1″ segments on the bias. If you’re using leeks, cut them into thin, half moon slices. Prepare a slurry of 1 Tbsp corn starch in 3 Tbsp of water.
The authentic way to make mapo tofu sauce perfectly coats every cube of tofu without being gloopy. The key is adding corn starch slurry three times, taking the pan off the heat in between so that the tofu releases any excess moisture. This is also where a carbon steel wok comes in handy. Compared to the heavy and more expensive cast iron or stainless versions, carbon steel responds to changes in temperature almost instantly.
We’ll start by adding 1 Tbsp of corn starch slurry to the pot, stirring gently to coat, and then taking the pan off the heat. When the temperature drops enough so that the tofu is no longer bubbling, add 1.5 tsp of slurry, and return the pan to high heat. Repeat a third time with 1 scant tsp slurry. By slowly building up the red sauce, it should coat the tofu without becoming thick and starchy.
Immediately add in the garlic scapes, leaks, or scallions, and cook, stirring gently but frequently until the greens are barely cooked. Top with the remaining 1/3 of the crispy dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. We’re finally done! I know it may seem complicated the first time, but once you get the hang of it, this mapo tofu can be on your table in 20 minutes.
Wine Pairing 美食配美酒
Lucien Albrecht Pinot Gris Cuvee Romanus 2018, serve at 6-8°C / 43-46°F
Our real-deal mapo tofu is bold, spicy, and savory. I like a white wine with body to stand up to the food and a little sweetness on the palate to contrast. However, we definitely don’t want dessert wine sweetness; some minerality will help cut through the richness of the tofu.
As with many Sichuan dishes, Alsatian gewurztraminer is a perfect match here. The flavors of lychee, rose, and ginger give it a sweet finish on the palate without excessive residual sugar.
Also in Alsace, pinot gris is the French name for the same grape as pinot grigio. The pinot gris of Alsace tend be fuller-bodied and richer than other pinot grigios on the market. Look for a rich, golden-yellow color and flavors of stone fruit, a good indication of a wine with some body.
Another great choice would be off-dry chenin blanc. It has sweetness with acidity to balance, while the honeyed pear and peach flavors are a great foil to the richness of mapo tofu. Like gewurztraminer, off-dry styles often feature florals (jasmine) and spice (ginger). Two good places to look are Vouvray in France and South Africa.
Did you try this dish?
Serve your perfectly saucy, authentic mapo tofu with a bowl of white rice and Sichuan Dry-Fried Green Beans 干煸四季豆 for an unbeatable combination. You can make an amazing Sichuan meal at home that’s better than any restaurant!
We’d love to hear how it went! As always, please let us know what you thought in the comments below, and don’t forget to tag #thericelover on Instagram.
Sichuan Mapo Tofu 正宗麻婆豆腐
- 2 tsp
pixian chili broad bean paste郫县豆瓣酱，2茶勺
- 1 tsp
whole dried red chili peppers干辣椒，10-15颗
- 1 Tbsp
red chili powderlike Korean gochugaru or Kashmiri chili powder / 辣椒面，1汤勺
- 1 tsp
Yongchuan fermented black beansoptional / 豆豉，20颗
- 1 box
Silken tofu(~16 oz) cut into 1 inch = 2.5 cm cubes, substitute soft or firm tofu / 嫩豆腐，1盒子（约450克），切块
- 4 oz ground beef 碎牛肉，120克
- 2 large garlic scapes cut into 1" segments on the bias, or 3 scallions cut into 1" segments, or 1 leek cut into thin slices / 蒜苗，2根
- 1½ cups stock or Better than Bouillon diluted to ½ strength / 高汤, 350克
- 1 Tbsp
Shaoxing cooking wineor dry sherry / 绍兴花雕酒，1汤勺
- 1 tsp
dark soy sauce老抽酱油，1茶勺
- 1 tsp minced ginger 姜末，1茶勺
- ½ tsp sugar 白糖，0.5茶勺
- 1 Tbsp corn starch or potato starch / 玉米淀粉，1汤勺
- 2⅓ Tbsp neutral cooking oil like avocado or canola / 菜籽油，适量
- ½ tsp salt 食用盐，3克
Blanch the tofu 豆腐焯水
- Heat ½ tsp salt and 8 cups of water on medium high (
Duxtop7.0 = 360°F = 180°C) until barely simmering.2000克水中大火煮至开始冒泡，加入3克食用盐。锅里加入豆腐块。一定要轻点，不然豆腐易烂。
- Carefully add the tofu. When the water comes to a rolling boil, blanch the tofu for 90 seconds and remove with a spider strainer to drain.水沸腾后，豆腐捞出，沥干水备用。
Crispy beef broth 牛肉酥，红汤
- Soak dried red chilies in a bowl hot water for 5 minutes to soften. Drain well.干辣椒泡温水5分钟，防止炸焦。
- Heat the
wokon medium-low heat (Duxtop 4.0 = 240°F = 115°C) and add 1 tsp of cooking oil. Toast the softened red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns until crispy and fragrant.锅小火，加适量的菜籽油。辣椒沥干水和花椒入锅翻炒至香脆。
- Crush the crispy dried red chilies and peppercorns with a
bench scraperor the flat of a Chinese cleaver. Coarsely chop the chilies.
- Add 2 Tbsp cooking oil to the pan, and cook the beef and minced ginger until crisp. The oil will transition from cloudy to clear.
- Add pixian broad bean paste to the pan, and stir fry until the red chili oil is fully rendered. The sauce will become bright red. Add ⅔ of the reserved crispy chilies + peppercorns and fermented black beans, stirring well to combine.
- Turn the heat up to high (Duxtop 8.0 = 390°F = 200°F). Deglaze the pan with Shaoxing cooking wine. Add dark soy sauce, sugar, stock, and pepper powder.
Cook the tofu and thicken sauce
- When the liquid comes to a simmer, slide in the blanched tofu cubes. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil, and boil with the lid on for 7-10 minutes (15 min for soft tofu, 25 min for firm tofu). Stir occasionally, being careful to prevent the tofu from crumbling (keep the edge of spatula against the pan).
- Combine 1 Tbsp of corn starch with 3 Tbsp of cold water to form a slurry. Add 1 Tbsp of slurry to the tofu, stir gently to combine, and remove the wok from the heat.
- Thicken again: add 1½ tsp of slurry, stir well to combine, and bring the tofu back to a boil. Remove the wok from the heat.
- Thicken a 3rd time: add 1 tsp of slurry, stir well to combine, and turn the heat back up.
- Add the garlic scapes and cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic scapes are just cooked through.
- Plate the dish and top with the remaining crispy chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.
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