If you are not a tofu lover, this dish will turn you. Mapo Doufu is a homey and comforting tofu-based dish hailing from the land of chilies and peppercorns, Szechuan Province, where my grandfather comes from. The sauce is a spicy, tangy and rich “gravy” generally made from fermented soybeans, chilies and Szechuan peppercorns. The complexity of the sauce contrasts beautifully when combined with the soft custard-like texture and flavor of silken tofu. Mapo Doufu- literally meaning “Pock-Faced Grandma Tofu”-is named after a legendary grandma from Chengdu who invented the recipe “back in the day” but no one knows the exact story. Either way, no one cooks better than Grandma! Although the dish is specifically from Szechuan, it is known across China and much of Asia as a kind of continental must-eat! Typically, it is cooked with ground pork, but I’ve chosen to share with you a vegan alternative so everyone can give it a try! If you want to add ground meat (poultry, pork or beef or lamb), I tell you when to add it. My version is by no means a traditional or strictly authentic recipe as it has evolved over at least 3 generations of my Asian-American family. But then again, who can claim authenticity for a recipe with origins based in legend?
Note: Mapo is typically made with either doubanjiang (fermented broad beans paste) or gochujang (fermented chili paste) but I came up with this recipe in college when I couldn’t find either and it just stuck!
Update 8/5/20: an IG follower of mine told me she used Doenjang instead of miso as she didn’t have any. I have since amended my recipe to reflect this glorious discovery. Miso is made with rice koji which sweetens the flavour. Doenjang is straight up fermented soybeans and salt which makes for a sharper and more complex flavour which mapo deserves. Both will work but doenjang is now my new favorite.
Vegan & Gluten-Free
Serves 2 healthy portions or 4 as a shared dish.
8 medium dried Shiitake Mushrooms, reconstituted and minced
3 medium cloves of Garlic, crushed into a paste
2 Tbsp Doenjang (or Red Miso)
2-3 Tbsp Gochugaru chili powder- if you can’t find gochugaru chili powder, Indian chili powder or hot paprika work as a substitute but you may have to adjust the amount.
2 Tsp Szechuan (or Black) Peppercorns, whole
2 inch piece of Ginger, peeled and minced
1/2 cup peas, soy beans, lima beans, or similar- frozen or fresh (optional)
1 block (approx. 500g) Silken or Soft Tofu, cut into 1-1.5 inch squares
2 stalks Green Onions, chopped (green ends included)
First, reconstitute your shiitake mushrooms by soaking them in boiling water and covering with a lid for about 30 minutes. When done, gently squeeze out the excess water, reserve the stock and mince.
Chop your garlic roughly then crush with a couple pinches of salt in a mortar & pestle until it becomes a paste. The salt will make it easier to break down the fibers. Add the miso and gochugaru chili powder and blend well. Gradually add a few tablespoons of the stock and mix in until the mixture is creamy.
Heat a few tablespoons of canola oil in a wok or pan on medium-high heat and infuse the peppercorns in the oil until they are dark and crispy, then remove them and set them aside to drain on a paper towel. Add the ginger and stir fry until fragrant. If you are going to add ground pork, do so here and stir fry until the color is no longer pink. Add your minced shiitake mushrooms and stir fry for a couple minutes.
Next, add the miso mixture, saving a couple dollops to serve on top. Stir fry everything together for a couple of minutes and, little by little, add mushroom stock as it dries out, you don’t want the paste to burn. Next, gradually pour more stock into the pan, stirring until it reaches the consistency of sauce that you want and adjusting the heat so it stays at a simmer. I personally like my sauce thick, like the consistency of a Bolognese. If you’d like it thinner and you’ve run out of stock, just use water. If you accidentally add too much stock and it becomes too soupy, you can always thicken it by stirring in corn starch dissolved in water. Similarly, add it little by little until it gets to the right consistency again. The corn starch will thicken the sauce as it heats.
Once you have the sauce the way you want, add the peas and simmer for a couple minutes more while you grind your peppercorns in a mortar & pestle and add them to the sauce, reserving a bit to sprinkle at the end. Next, toss in your green onions (reserving a few pinches for garnish) and stir them into the sauce. Immediately add your tofu by very carefully by folding them into the sauce. It breaks apart very easily. Once the pieces are coated, let it simmer low until heated through about 2 minutes. I personally turn the heat off right after incorporating the tofu. I like the contrast of cold pieces of custardy tofu with the spice and heat of the sauce. If you decide to use firmer tofu, give it time to cook in the sauce in order to soften the consistency.
When ready, serve immediately on a bowl of steaming-hot rice ( I prefer Japanese!), with a pinch of chopped green onions, ground peppercorns a bit of leftover miso paste and drizzles of sesame oil on top. If you are feeling brave (and not vegan), try this dish with a dollop of Japanese mayonnaise or aioli (as in the photo). I know it sounds weird, but the combination is akin to the “revelation” of raita/yoghurt with curry or bechamel in lasagna. Once you’ve had it, you can’t not have it ever again!
Variations: There are so many variations of this dish and many people like to add their own twist. I often like to serve topped the dish with a hard-boiled egg or a handful of raw mung bean sprouts or alfalfa sprouts for some “garden-y” freshness. Have fun playing with this dish and making it yours!