In the 1860s China’s last great imperial dynasty was entering its final chapters, and Mrs. Chen survived smallpox at a great cost, leaving her disfigured from scarring. Left to the city outskirts at Wanfu bridge entering the northern edges of the city, she and her husband operated a humble road-side eatery called the Chen Xingsheng Restaurant.
Though there are several legends involving how Mrs. Chen’s tofu dish became popularized, (via traders asking her to cook their wares, a tired businessman seeking shelter, or meat-eating customers who wanted to upgrade her vegetarian version) Mrs. Chen’s recipe became renown, and hungry patrons were told to identify the humble stall through her appearance: “Ma” meaning scarred with pockmarks, and “Po” meaning old lady. Today, the Scarred Old Lady’s tofu is celebrated the world over, and is part of the reason Chengdu became recognized as a UNESCO culinary city.
Chengdu records from 1909 show that the Chen family eventually embraced the popular name, re-registering their business as Chen Mapo Tofu Restaurant and listed as one of the 23 most famous restaurants in Chengdu in the late Qing Dynasty. Its flavor, price and suitability with rice meant mapo tofu became a Chinese food staple, spreading nationwide.
The best philosophy for mapo tofu is: The simpler, the better. Even though the ingredients are humble, mapo tofu is seen as a test of any aspiring chef’s skills. Importantly, the right ingredients are crucial in creating an authentic taste, which we’ve supplied for you here.
Our Mapo Tofu Recipe
prep: 15 mins + cook: 15 mins
Items marked with a * are included in our Sichuan Recipe Box.
For the Tofu:
1 tsp salt
Enough water to cover the tofu
2 pounds or 1kg extra firm tofu/bean curd, cut into 1 inch cubes. NOT soft tofu as it is too easy to break.
For the Pork & Sauce:
10.5oz or 300g ground pork
3/4 cup cooking oil (we always use canola oil, but peanut oil also works very well)
1 tsp of Sichuan peppercorns*
4 inches of ginger, finely minced
8 cloves of garlic, finely minced
4 Tbsp of chilli flakes*
4-6 Tbsp spicy bean chili sauce* (adjust the amount base on your spice level)
2 tbsps of Sichuan peppercorn powder*
2 cups of chicken stock (water also works just fine)
2 tbsp of light soy sauce
1 tbsp of sesame oil (optional but recommended)
2 tbsp cornstarch
2 stalk of green onion/ scallions to garnish
1. For the Tofu: Give the tofu a quick blanch in boiled water. Boil enough water to cover the tofu, add the prepared salt (½ tsp) in when the water starts simmering, gently push the tofu cubes in after the salt dissolves. This step helps to remove the grassy taste of tofu and help them hold up better in the pan. Leave the tofu in there until it’s ready to go in the pan.
For the Rest:
2.Add the oil to the wok over medium high heat until smoking. Add 1 tsp of whole Sichuan peppercorn for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Turn heat off and remove peppercorns from oil.
3. Add pork to the same oil over medium high heat and cook approx 2-3 minutes until the pork is cooked and re-releases the oil.
Take the pork out and set aside.
4. Turn off the heat, and add the chill bean paste into the oil, make sure it isn’t burning, then turn the heat back on to medium low to simmer the paste for about 30-40 seconds. This helps to preserve the taste as well as the color of the chili bean paste.
5. Add in the garlic and ginger mince, give a quick stir, then add the chili flakes and 1 Tbsp of the peppercorn powder for about a minute until it turns into a red, even paste.
6. Add the stock.
7. Drain your tofu and add them in the sauce along with the pork.
8. Turn the heat up to medium high. Carefully place the tofu in the wok without breaking, until the sauce starts to simmer. Periodically gently push the tofu to prevent sticking to the wok. Refrain from stirring or moving the tofu a lot to keep its shape.
9. Once the liquid is reduced by a third, add in the remaining soy sauce and sesame oil.
10. Meanwhile, prepare a cornstarch liquid with 2 Tbsp cornstarch and 4 Tbsp of water. Add cornstarch liquid to wok until it reaches the desired consistency.
11. Stir in the green onions/scallions, mix in for about 30 seconds, top with the 1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorn powder. Serve with steamed rice.