Recipe: Ma Po Tofu

Ma Po Tofu

One of my readers wants to know if I serve Ma Po Tofu at Shiok and if I know a recipe for a vegetarian version. (Sorry, dear lady, I seem to have accidentally trashed your email so I couldn’t send a reply. I hope you will check back and read this recipe.)

Let’s talk about Ma Po Tofu. It’s a well-known dish from the Sichuan province of China, and in keeping with their reputation, is pretty strongly flavoured. As I’ve said in an earlier article, I am not the biggest fan of the bland flavour of tofu, but this dish is a wonderful spicy background for it. I love to have it with plain fried rice and some stir-fried veggies.

The original version is made with minced pork (or beef) which gives it a hearty flavour. As in most Chinese dishes, the meat is not added in large quantities, but just enough to lend its character to the dish. At Shiok, however, we make a proper vegetarian version of it by replacing the minced beef with minced fried tofu instead. While it doesn’t give it the same flavour, it comes close to the texture of the meat. (We also reduce the oil considerably.)

What you need

Firm Tofu – 200 gm

Fried tofu (minced) – about 75 gm (replace with minced beef for the original version)

Chilli bean paste – 1.5 tbsp

Peanut oil – 3 tbsp

Fermented black beans – 2 tsp

Whole Sichuan red chillies – 6-10, depending on your chilli tolerance (see notes below)

Chicken stock or vegetable stock (unsalted) – 1/2 cup

Sugar – 1 large pinch

Light soy sauce – 1 tsp

Cornflour – 2 tsp mixed with 1 tbsp cold water

Sichuan peppercorns (ground) – 1/4 tsp

Spring onions (scallions) – chopped – 2 tbsp

How to make it

Cut the tofu into 1/2 inch cubes.

Heat a wok on high heat. When it’s nice and hot, add the oil. Add the minced beef (or minced fried tofu) and stir-fry for about a minute on high heat. The beef should be brown on the outside but still have some cooking left.

With a spatula, move the beef to one side of the wok so the oil can drain back into the middle of the wok. Turn the heat down to medium. (If you don’t, you will shortly start coughing till your lungs pop out.)

Now add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry for 30 seconds. The oil should turn red. Add the fermented black beans and red chillies and stir-fry for another 30 seconds. The oil should have a nice smell from all this seasoning.

Add the chicken or vegetable stock and stir it in. Then gently add the cut tofu to the liquid. Don’t stir-fry this too much or the tofu could break apart. Try to hold the pan by its long handle and gently shake it back and forth.

Add the sugar and light soy sauce. Turn the heat down and simmer the mixture for about 5 minutes.

Depending on how thick the sauce is at this stage, stir in some of the cornflour-water mixture and turn up the heat to medium. The sauce should start to thicken. Add more of the mixture and cook till the sauce has the consistency slightly more runny than tomato ketchup. It should cling to the tofu nicely.

Stop the cooking at this stage, add the spring onions and mix.

Empty the dish into a hot bowl. Scatter with the powdered Sichuan peppercorns and serve.

Chef’s Notes

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Yes, I know this dish uses some exotic ingredients. I expect many of you writing in to ask for substitutes, so I’ll save you the trouble. There is no substitute for Sichuan peppercorns and if you live in USA, your government has banned it, so you will never find it. If you live anywhere else, try to get it. It won’t be easy, and if you can’t find it, just do without. Chilli bean sauce (or paste) should be available in your China Town. If not, try getting some yellow bean sauce and mixing in some red chilli paste.

This dish is supposed to be oily. I have cut down the amount of oil used in the original version by half. No, I’m not joking. Why would I? :)

The original recipe uses powdered Sichuan chillies. I’ve used whole ones so that you get the flavour without being overpowered by the chilli. If you can’t get Sichuan chillies, try the hot variety of dried Indian red chillies and use a little less.

Saltiness is something in this dish that can vary widely. This is because the chilli bean paste, the fermented black beans, and the soy sauce all have salt in them which can be a big variable depending on the brands you use. Check the salt level once before adding the cornflour mixture. If it needs more salt, add it. If it’s got too much, try adding a bit more sugar and maybe even some chilli. If you’re using a commercial stock cube, then your dish may well be a salty mess.

I add a bit of garlic to most things, even though this recipe doesn’t use it. You don’t have to, but garlic doesn’t need a reason.

If you can’t find the ingredients you need, come try the dish at my restaurant. We have it all. ;)

34 Replies to “Recipe: Ma Po Tofu”

  1. For someone who doesn’t care too much for tofu, you are writing a lot about it!
    Your notes are much more fun than the recipes themselves. Try to get yourself a slot in some TV channel as a cookery show host. You’d beat Sanjeev Kapoor hollow.

  2. Madhu (Ze Chef) says:

    I don’t like the bland flavour of tofu too much, which is why I use it in spicy dishes.
    Yes, I dream of having my own fun-filled cookery show some day. But I can’t smile without a break like Sanjeev Kapoor. ;)

  3. madhu, (this time I checked 5 times if I got the name right)
    I dont know if I shud try this one as I dont have many ingredients. But seriously, I am looking forward to more veggie stuff. Pray, why did the US govt ban chillis, terrorist threat?
    As for smiling like Sanjeev Kapoor, just ask the TV guys to show you the cheque before shooting.
    Let me know Ok, I am good at tasting and going “hmmm hmm hmmm..Lajawaab hai. wah wah’

  4. Madhu (Ze Chef) says:

    Alpha, they haven’t banned chillies. They’ve banned Sichuan peppercorns (which are actually a berry, not pepper) to prevent spread of the citrus canker disease.

  5. Oh man, Ma Po Tofu just rocks.
    Although the chinese restaurant that serves it here has one they use soft tofu with. They claim to be a more HongKong based Chinese cuisine place.
    In any case, great recipe.

  6. two quick comments:
    The name of the dish literally is “Pockmarked Granny’s Tofu”, apparently because Grandma Chen suffered from a bout of smallpox in childhood.
    Also, the meat used in the dish is not beef, but minced pork. The use of beef is relatively new in Sichuan cooking, and traditional snack 小吃 like this, almost exclusively use pork or chicken.
    Your picture looks very appetizing, and the recipe you offer is fairly authentic–fermented black beans is a new one, though, as are the sugar and cornflour. I will definitely come in and try it the next time I’m in Bangalore.
    What kind of tofu do you use? This dish is best with soft tofu, but that is very hard to find here.

  7. btw, is ‘cornflour’ another word for ‘cornstarch’? If so, my mistake. Cornstarch is a must.
    Madhu is correct about Sichuan peppercorns, but you still find them sold all over the US. Maybe farmers in the US are growing them now?

  8. Madhu (Ze Chef) says:

    Hi Prince.
    Yes, I know the literal translation. Wanted to keep it simple. ;)
    Also, the meat used in the dish is not beef, but minced pork.
    Hey, I’ve never been to Chengdu (yet) but I got this recipe from Ms Dunlop’s book, who apparently got it from the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine where she studied. One of the earliest books on Chinese food I read (about 12 years back) by Ken Hom also used beef. He wrote the book about his travels in China.
    I must note that Ms Dunlop makes special mention of the beef used, saying that it was unusual. Ask your wife, I guess. :)
    btw, is ‘cornflour’ another word for ‘cornstarch’?
    Yes, it’s British English.
    This dish is best with soft tofu
    Our tofu is soft enough. We have a Chinese vendor who supplies to many restaurants.
    I will definitely come in and try it the next time I’m in Bangalore.
    Just send me an email at chef at (this domain dot com) if you’re planning a trip. (Although my restaurant serves mostly South-east Asian food.)

  9. since you seem well versed with thai cuisine……do you have an easy home recipe for yam pa duk fu ( i am not sure i am spelling this right)……..

  10. Desi from California says:

    Congratulations on making the career switch… and congrats also for a great cookimg blog!
    Next time I visit Bangalore, I will be sure to check out your restaurant.

  11. I enjoyed reading the recipes as I’m sure I’ll enjoy tasting them. (I’ll leave the cooking part to Alpha ;-) ) Great food blog, Madhu. You promote your work with a lot of passion.

  12. Ah yes…Ma Po Tofu… I can attest to the fact that it is served with minced pork in China… had it all over the place in Beijing and Harbin… it’s quite tasty.
    I feel the same as you about tofu. It can be bland as heck. However, I really like the pressed (aged? smoked?) tofu that has red covering. If you juilenne it and serve it with greens cooked with garlic and soy it is delicious!!!!

  13. Tried your recipe .. with little modification. But hey it turned out great. Enjoyed cooking and reading your recipe.

  14. Hi ,
    Loved your recipes. Its a great stress reliever to read a recipe while taking a break at work!!
    Please keep on posting many such recipes , how about some chicken ones ?
    Why is it that my fried rice or chicken/non-veg dishes never taste as good as restaurants although I have used sesame oil etc. it because of the oil or the wok or loads of ajinomoto which is normally added to it.
    Will definitely drop into your restaurant when I am in B’lore.
    Cheers !

  15. I’ve looking for minced tofu and not having much luck until I saw your Ma Po Tofu recipe. You saw fried tofu (minced) can you buy it already minced or did you mince the fried version?
    plz reply asap
    Many Thanks

  16. To Cecily – don’t bother looking for minced tofu, just get firm tofu and then mash it. It mashes very easily (you can just squeeze it in your hand). To get a “fried minced tofu”, I imagine that Madhu first crushes it and then briefly deep fries the mashed bits until they are slightly crunchy.

  17. Hello, Madhu–
    I’m just an American girl with an obsession with Indian spices. That’s all.
    The fusion of Indian spices and Chinese/Thai flavors is especially fascinating.
    Your site has some of the best writing that I have seen on the web. I’ll be back, especially as I tackle tofu.

  18. cazual_dream says:

    I tried this dish. Although I am a real bad cook, I can make a very tasty dish with your recipe. Highly recommended.
    Thanks so much for your recipe.

  19. Sichuan peppercorns aren’t banned in the US anymore, as long as they’re heated prior to importation.

  20. Neal McGrath says:

    FYI, the US government has not banned Szechuan pepper corns, it is freely available at any Chinese grocery store.
    There was, years ago, a temporary import restriction when one shipment was found to carry a fungus that can infect crops, but that was short-lived and long ago. And even if it were banned, I’m sure someone would bring it in anyway (this is the US, not Singapore – no one cares what the government says here).

  21. I first tasted tofu in the 1950’s when my parents would take us to a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco and we’d have it in sukiyaki. I fell in love with it.
    After college, I joined the workforce and my coworkers introduced me to Mapo Tofu in local Chinese restaurants (it was frequently called Marpor tofu). This quickly became my favorite lunch item. I’ve had it in numerous Chinese restaurants around the US and they all differ somewhat.
    I would love to travel to India and China to taste local versions of this meal. I’ve a couple of friends who live in Bangalore, so you can bet I’ll visit Shiok!

  22. Indeed, sichuan peppercorns WERE banned in the United States for a while. However, they are now again generally available, at least here in New York City.

  23. Hi, I had some baked tofu so I was looking for tofu recipe online and I found this (Ma Po Tofu) recipe. I didnt have all the ingredients such as spring onions, fermented black beans and Sichuan red chilies. I used sambol chili paste insted of red chili bean paste. It still turned out pretty good. I had some stif fried veggies that I used for this dish, also added some ginger paste and crushed red pepper.

  24. Hassan Sarker says:

    Haha, I would love to come to your restaurant and try it out; too bad i would have to travel a good couple of thousand miles to get there. BLAH. Thanks for the recipe though, I shall try it out.

  25. I’m sorry, your recipe is American. Not saying it can’t be good, just not the real deal that should be cited in Wikipedia.
    Chinese uses the soft silken tofu. In Chinese, the 6 key point to this dish is “麻,辣,燙,鮮,酥,嫩” (numbing, spicy, hot, fresh, crisp and SOFT). These experiences should come in that order in the mouth. No sugar, no soy sauce, no stock, no starch.

  26. In the US you can find preground “Japanese Pepper” in small shaker jars in most Asian markets. The taste is just about the same as Sichuan pepper. In fact, I think it is the same species, just under a different name.

  27. Jeez, who let that nutto on the internet?! Will someone just delete it please?

  28. themintyness says:

    Your recipe turned out very well, I’m Chinese and I adjusted the amounts of the ingredients a little bit, but my parents loved it! We come from the Northeastern part of China, so we’re not really into overly-spiced foods. This was a really simple recipe with delicious flavors, thanks!

  29. This is one of my favourite dishes! I love the combination of mince meat and tofu and the spicy sauce. I like to eat it with some of mapotofu and some the rice in the same go :D

  30. Also I linked this recipe from site!

  31. Ashwini Tank says:

    I have Sichuan peppercorns. My friend brought it from China. I love its smell when I roast it – the whole house gets filled with its earthy aroma.
    Now I just have to try your recipe!! :D
    Hey, I’ve been looking around for Chinese rice wine and brown rice vinegar for some chinese preparations – is there any place in bangalore where I can get them? ofcourse, not a crate full. Only for home cooking purpose :D

  32. I hope one day that the author of this recipe will actually learn how to cook. “Chicken stock” is NOT vegetarian. It is made from chickens. That would seem fairly obvious. Chicken is not vegetarian. Neither, for that matter, is fish. One does not need to put meat into everything for “flavour”. Some day, I hope, you all will discover the sublime and subtle flavors available in this world that do not reek of putrid carcass.

  33. Narasimham says:

    I tasted ma po tofu at this restaurant. I am assuming that it made as per the above recipe (obviously though!)…:)
    It tasted ethereal…:)…really very nice…. a heavenly taste…. and I sure would keep going for it again and again…
    However… just a small however… there is a little bit of difference from what I tasted outside India (Not China…A proper Chinese restaurant in Japan)…. Now, I am clueless if this is the actual stuff and that was different…But, that one sure didnt have a sugary taste…

  34. Just a note on the Sezchuan Peppercorns. The US ban was lifted in 2005 (after this was originally written.) It was not about them being unsafe for human consumption. It was possible the peppercorns could carry a bacteria that is harmful to citrus crops. Now the peppercorns allowed into the US are heated to 160F to kill the bacteria.

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