Chinese doufu in blocks is generally coarser than Japanese ‘silken’ tofu, but it is also available in many other forms besides fresh blocks, e.g. dried, fried, frozen, as doufu-skin, in sheets, as egg-doufu (oddly enough also known as ‘Japanese’ doufu), and more.
Below are some more common recipes using doufu.
Mapo doufu (aka Mala doufu/tofu) – the great favourite
Mapo Doufu (Simplified Chinese: 麻婆豆腐; Traditional Chinese: 麻婆豆腐; Pinyin: Mápo dòufu;). Mapo Doufu can be found in most Chinese restaurants, but there are hundreds of variations. Sometimes called Mapo Tofu or Mala doufu/tofu, it is a traditional Sichuan Dish, based on douban jian (fermented broadbean and chili paste) and douchi (fermented black beans), with minced beef, though sometimes pork is used. Variations exist with other ingredients such as water chestnuts, onions, other vegetables, or wood ear fungus.
The real thing is strongly spiced with the characteristic málà (numbing spiciness) flavour of Sichuan cuisine, so it is often called Mala Dòufu.
The feel of the particular dish is often described using seven specific Chinese adjectives: má 麻 (numbing), là 辣 (spicy hot), tāng 烫 (hot temperature), xiān 鲜 (fresh), nèn 嫩 (tender and soft), xiāng 香 (aromatic), and sū 酥 (flaky).
The authentic dish is usually only found in Sichuanese restaurants that do not adapt the dish for non-Sichuanese tastes.
The most important ingredient in the dish is the chili and broad bean paste from Sichuan’s Pixian county (郫县豆瓣酱), plus Sichuan pepper, garlic, green onions, and rice wine, with optional fermented black beans, chilli oil, and chilli flakes from the heaven-facing pepper (朝天辣椒).
Other ingredients may include water or stock, sugar (depending on the saltiness of the bean paste brand used), and corn or potato flour (to thicken the sauce).
Legend has it that during the Qing Dynasty, there was an old woman named Chen Po, who ran a tofu business in Chengdu. She was so successful that other tofu makers and restaurants owners envied her and gave her the nickname “Ma Po”. “Ma” stands for “ma-zi” (Chinese: mázi, 麻子) which means pockmarks. “Po” is the first syllable of “popo” (Chinese: 婆婆, pópo) which means an old woman or grandma. Hence, mapo is an old woman whose face is pockmarked. It is thus sometimes translated as “pockmarked grandma‘s (or old woman‘s) tofu”.
Chen Po was aware of this, but just got on with her business. One day she invented a new way of cooking tofu, and the dish would become famous. Nowadays there is a restaurant, Chen Mapo Doufu, which claims to use her original recipe and to be on the site of Chen Po’s original market stall. I visited when I was in Chengdu; it’s a bit big for a market stall, and very busy. So busy, in fact, that there is at least one sister restaurant.
Mapo doufu can be found in restaurants in other Chinese provinces as well as in Japan and Korea where the flavour is adapted to local tastes.
In the west, the dish is often greatly changed, with its spiciness severely toned down to widen its appeal.
This happens particularly in Chinese restaurants not specializing in Sichuan cuisine. In American Chinese cuisine, I am told, the dish is often made without meat to appeal to vegetarians, using shiitakes or other mushrooms instead of meat, and with very little spice, a thick sweet-and-sour sauce, and added vegetables – completely different from the original dish.
Given the many ingredients, this probably looks complicated, and it certainly can be, if you want to go for a really authentic taste, but some of the ingredients are optional, if you don’t like or can’t get get hold of them.
It’s probably worth mentioning that it is also possible to buy ready-made Mapo-doufu sauce mixes from Chinese supermarkets – although nowhere near as good as the real thing, they’re not actually bad, and can be improved by the addition of fresh ingredients
- ½ cup oil (divided)
- 1-2 fresh hot chili peppers, e.g. “bird’s-eye chillies, thinly sliced
- 6-8 dried red chilies (roughly chopped). “Facing heaven” chillis preferred.
- 1/2- 1 1/2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns to taste, powdered or finely ground, reserving 1/4 teaspoon for a garnish. If you like, you can toast the peppercorns before grinding them; it makes grinding easier, and the flavour is stronger.
- 3 tablespoons ginger (finely minced)
- 3 tablespoons garlic (finely minced)
- 8 ounces ground beef (225g). Pork can be substituted.
- 1-2 tablespoons fermented chilli-bean sauce (there are various brands)
- 1-2 teaspoonsful fermented black beans (optional – can be very salty)
- 2/3 cup chicken broth (or water)
- 1 pound block of tofu (450g, cut into 1 inch cubes)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cornflour
- 1/4 teaspoon sesame oil (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar (optional)
- 1 spring onion (finely chopped)
1. Prepare the tofu by cutting it into cubes (around 2cm square). Bring a large amount of water to a boil and then add a pinch of salt. Slide the tofu in and cook for 1 minute. Remove and drain.
2. Toast the chilies. If you have homemade toasted chili oil, you can skip this step. Heat your wok or a small saucepan over low heat. Add ¼ cup of the oil and throw in the fresh and dried peppers. Stir occasionally and heat until fragrant, about 5 minutes, ensuring that the peppers don’t burn. Remove from the heat and set aside.
3. Heat the remaining ¼ cup of oil in your wok over medium heat. Add the ginger. After 1 minute, add the garlic. Fry for another minute, and then turn up the heat to high and add the ground meat. Break up the meat and fry it until it’s cooked through. Add your ground Sichuan peppercorns and stir for about 15-30 seconds, taking care to not let it burn, as it will turn bitter if it does.
4. Add the fermented chilli-bean paste to the mixture and stir it in well. Cook a while until the oil is released and you have a bright red colour. You could also add some fermented black beans in this step, but bear in mind that they can be very salty. Add ⅔ cup of chicken broth or water to the wok and stir. Let this simmer for a minute or so.
5. In the meantime, put a ¼ cup of water in a small bowl with the cornflour and mix until thoroughly combined. Then add the cornflour mixture to the sauce and stir. Let it bubble away until the sauce starts to thicken. (If it gets too thick, splash in a little more water or chicken stock.)
6. Then add your chili oil from step 2 – peppers and all! Stir the oil into the sauce, and add the tofu. Use your spatula to gently toss the tofu in the sauce. Stirring may cause it to break up. Let everything cook for 3-5 minutes. Add the sesame oil and sugar (if using) along with the spring onions and stir until the spring onions are just wilted.
7. Serve with a final sprinkle of Sichuan peppercorn powder as a garnish (optional). You could also add some coriander leaves as an additional garnish (not quite so authentic, but colourful).
Here are a few more (simpler) versions.
Ma Po Tofu (麻婆豆腐)
1 block silken tofu
1/4 lb minced pork
3 tablespoons Sichuan spicy bean paste (辣豆瓣酱)
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons cooking oil
3 tablespoons chili oil
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns (roasted and ground to powder)
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon fermented black beans (rinsed and pounded)
2 stalks of leeks or scallions (chopped into 1 or 2-inch length)
2 gloves garlic (chopped)
1/2 cup water
Salt to taste (Warning: fermented black beans can already be quite salty)
Cut the tofu into small pieces, drain the water from the tofu and set aside. Heat up a wok and pour in the cooking oil and chili oil. Add the chopped garlic, ground pork, spicy bean paste and stir-fry until the pork is half-done. Then add in chili powder, soy sauce, fermented black beans and stir-fry until aromatic. Add in the tofu and water; stir gently to blend the tofu (don’t break them) well with the sauce. Lower the heat and simmer for about 3-5 mins or until the sauce thickens. Add in the roasted Sichuan peppercorn powder and chopped scallions. Gently stir and blend well. Dish out and serve hot.
Ma po tofu (very simplified – student – version)
Add starch (cornflour or potato flour) to water
Chop a chilli
Whole Sichuan peppers
A block of tofu cut into cubes
Add oil to wok and heat. Add chilli and Suchuan pepper when hot. Then add the tofu and cook, stirring gently, for 3-5 minutes. Add the bean paste and mix well. Then add the starch+water mixture and stir.
Serve with steamed bread or rice.
Ma la doufu
This is a more typically Chinese recipe (no specific quantities; it depends on the cook)
hot bean paste.
doufu, chopped into bite-size pieces
Add oil to a clean dry pan and heat to smoking hot.
Add the Sichuan pepper. When the aroma is strong, add the garlic, onion, and ginger.
Add a little soy sauce and the bean paste and mix.
Add the doufu and cook on a low heat for about 6 minutes, stirring very gently
Chop the chilli finely and sprinkle it on top.
Here are a few more doufu recipes.
Basic Stir-fry tofu
Leek flower or wild garlic cut in pieces
Bean paste (yellow bean paste, NOT Sichuan hot bean paste)
Tofu cut into cubes
Heat a lot of oil in a wok. Add the tofu. When it becomes yellow, remove and drain.
Heat a little oil in the wok
Add the vegetables, then the tofu and salt.
Add a little bean paste and chicken stock (powder)
Stir-fry about 2 minutes.
(Optional – add water-starch mixture to make more sauce.)
Chafing Dish Tofu 鐵板豆腐 (tie ban dou fu)
A Taiwanese recipe. Serves 4
250 g (9 oz) extra firm tofu
80 g (3 oz) preserved pork belly, sliced thinly (bacon is a good substitute)
4 leek stems, cut into 3 cm lengths
4 fresh shiitake mushrooms, cut into chunks
1 large chilli pepper, sliced diagonally into 3 or 4 pieces
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Taiwan rice wine
1/2 teaspoon of white sugar
1/2 teaspoon hot bean paste
1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
1. Spread the leeks and mushrooms in the chafing dish.
2. Cut tofu into slices about 2 cm (3/4″) thick, Add oil to non-stick pan, and brown the tofu slightly on a low to medium heat. Remove to the chafing dish.
3. Fry the pork in a wok with a little oil at a medium heat until fragrant and slightly crisp. Remove and sprinkle over tofu.
4. Add chilli to chafing dish.
5. Except for the sesame oil, add the sauce ingredients to the wok. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 5 minutes. Add sesame oil, and pour sauce over other ingredients in chafing dish.
6. Light chafing dish burner, and serve. Eat as soon as the sauce starts to bubble. Turn off the burner after a few minutes to avoid overcooking.
Taiwan rice wine is quite different than the ‘yellow’ or Shaoxing wine in China. Mirin is the best substitute. For this dish, however, so little wine is used that you will not go too far wrong with any type of rice wine.
Deep Fried Tofu 炸豆腐 (zha dou fu)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon white rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon white sugar
1/2 teaspoon chilli, chopped finely
1 stalk spring onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 or 2 cakes of firm tofu (quantity is not important), cut into 3cm cubes
oil for deep-frying
1. Drain tofu.
2. Mix the liquid dipping sauce ingredients in a bowl, making sure sugar is dissolved.
3. Add the remaining dipping sauce ingredients and stir.
4. Heat the oil in a wok or pot to about 180 degrees C.
5. In manageable portions, fry tofu quickly until golden brown. Drain well.
6. Serve at once, dipping tofu into the sauce.
Like all deep fried foods, this dish will suffer if not served immediately. The tofu also goes well with chili sauce or any sauce you like.