This is my favorite Chinese soul food: Mapo Tofu! This is a super flavorful tofu dish that’s stewed in a complex savory sauce with spicy peppers and numbing Sichuan peppercorns! If you love spicy, ultra-flavorful food, you’re going to love this dish!
Watch how to make Chinese Mapo Tofu
What is Chinese mapo tofu?
Chinese mapo tofu is a delicious dish of tofu that’s simmered in a spicy, savory sauce that is so addictive! We make this about once a week and finish EVERY single bit of it, everytime! It has a unique tingly-spicy sensation in the mouth that the Chinese call “Mala” or “numbing heat”.
The origin of this dish dates back to ancient China. It’s said that a woman threw together a quick stirfry for some visiting customers. This dish was so delicious that she became known for it. The term translates to “pock-mark tofu”, named after the woman who I’m assuming had pock-marked skin on her face. It’s actually kind of mean when you think about it, but that doesn’t stop this dish from being so delicious!
The Power of Numbing Heat in Chinese Mapo Tofu
The unique numbing heat sensation comes from the inclusion of two ingredients: chili peppers and sichuan peppercorns. As we all know, chili peppers are a source of heat for us spicy food lovers! However, sichuan peppercorns are a little less known.
This unique, purple-colored spice comes from the Sichuan region of China, the same place that this dish originates from. It has a wonderful fragrant taste that’s kind of like a cross between citrus and flowers. It’s quite difficult to describe in words, but it is very unique and unlike anything you may have had before!
Even more unique is the numbing, tingling sensation it leaves on your tongue! When you bite into one of these, you feel a numbness, similar to Novocaine. Then a tingling sensation begins to flood your tongue, almost as if a low current of electricity is running through it! When you combine this sensation with the spice from the chilies, you have an interesting cool-yet-spicy, numbing-yet-tingling feeling in your mouth!
The secret to a good Chinese mapo tofu (or any stir-fry for that matter)
When I used to make this dish for my roommate, he would ask me, “How did you get the meat so flavorful??” I thought it was normal, but his question made me realize that people who are making stirfries at home are skipping this critical step: velveting the meat.
Velvetting is a technique used in Chinese stirfries where the meat is marinated in a flavorful sauce, then cornstarch is added to the mix. After a short marinating time of about 10 – 20 minutes, the meat is cooked until about 80% donness, then removed from the heat. The cornstarch acts as a protective barrier around the meat, helping to trap the juices in the meat.
Velvetting is the reason why the GOOD chinese takeout place has meat that’s so ultra-tender. Some places even include a bit of baking soda to the mix, which has been shown to tenderize meats chemically!
What ingredients do I need to make Chinese Mapo Tofu?
A lot of these are going to require a trip to the Asian market! If you don’t have one available, you can find many online! Make sure to check out my recommended brands so you can get everything you need to make this delicious dish at home!
- Ground pork
- Silken tofu (the soft variety)
- Green onion
- Chicken stock
- Soy sauce (See it on Amazon) – This is my recommended brand!
- Cooking sake (See it on Amazon) – This is my recommended brand!
- Sesame Oil (See it on Amazon) – This is my recommended brand!
- Chili garlic sauce – (See it on Amazon) – This is my favorite brand, hands down!
- Dried Sichuan chilies (See it on Amazon) – This is my recommended brand!
- Tobandjan [Fermented chili bean paste] (See it on Amazon) – Lee Kum Kee makes a fantastic chili bean sauce that’s perfect for this dish!
- Daojan [Fermented black bean sauce] (See it on Amazon) – This delicious paste is used for many kinds of Chinese stirfry dishes like beef & broccoli! It adds salty savoriness and makes this Chinese mapo tofu dish so delicious!
- Rice wine vinegar (See it on Amazon) – I trust this brand from Marukan. They’re a trusted name brand here in Japan!
- Sichuan Peppercorns (See it on Amazon) – The main ingredient in getting that tingling, numbing sensation!
- 1 lb 80 - 20 Ground pork
- 1 lb Soft Silken Tofu
- Garlic 3 – 4 cloves
- Green onion whites 1 stalk
- Ginger ¼ inch piece (about 1 tbsp when minced)
Dried Sichuan Chilies (See it on Amazon)
- 1 stalk Sliced green onion tops
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground pork and all the *marinade* ingredients. Stir well to combine. Set aside and allow it to marinade for 20 minutes to overnight.
- Finely mince the garlic, green onion whites, and ginger and add them to a bowl. Cut the Szechuan dried chilies into thirds and place them in the same bowl. Slice the greens of the green onion stalk and place them in a separate bowl to be used as garnish.
- Cut your tofu into cubes and set it aside.
- In your wok or pan, toast the Szechuan peppercorns over medium-low heat until they become fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove from the heat and grind them in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Place it in a bowl and keep on the side.
- Heat your pan or wok over high heat, then quickly add a neutral cooking oil like vegetable oil, followed by the marinated pork. Cook it until about 60% cooked. There should be visible spots of brown and pink in the pork. Remove the meat from the heat and clean your wok or pan if necessary.
- Heat your pan or wok over high heat, then quickly add oil, followed by the *aromatics* (green onion whites, ginger, garlic, and Szechuan dried chilies). Stir them constantly to keep from burning and cook them until they become aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add a splash of your cooking wine, about 2 tbsp, and allow it to burn off the excess alcohol. Quickly add in the vinegar and combine everything, allowing it to cook for about 5 seconds.
- Add in your tobandjan and daodjan and combine. As the sauce cooks, you will see the bean pastes start to dry out and stick to the pan. This is okay. Continue to cook everything together until the bean pastes start to dry out and become thick, about 30 seconds.
- Add in your chicken stock and stir to combine, making sure to scrape off any of the bean paste that is stuck to the pan. Add in any of the juices that have leached out of the meat into the pan. Allow the sauce to come to a boil, then lower the heat to medium high. Allow the sauce to reduce by about 25%, making sure to stir constantly, about 2 – 3 minutes.
- Add in your pork and cook it until it has completely cooked through, about 3 – 4 minutes. Add in the sugar and the ground, toasted Szechuan peppercorn powder. Mix thoroughly to combine.
- Pour out any excess moisture that has leached from the tofu cubes, then add them carefully into your pan. Working very gently, combine the tofu and the meat together, making sure not to mash up the tofu in the process. As the tofu cooks, it will leach moisture into the meat mixture, creating a sauce. Allow the mixture to come to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring everything together slowly and carefully, about 5 minutes, or until the tofu is heated all the way through. Taste the mapo tofu and adjust the seasoning to taste.
- Carefully spoon your mapo tofu to a serving dish, then garnish with sliced green onions and serve.