What is Mapo Tofu?

Outside Chen Mapo Tofu Restaurant today (image: intothemiddlekingdom.com)

Outside Chen Mapo Tofu Restaurant today (image: intothemiddlekingdom.com)

Recently, we popped a delectable new recipe up on our website for Vegetarian Mapo Tofu, which prompted our graphic designer to say, Funnily enough, I heard chef Ben Shewry (from Attica Restaurant) refer to 'Mapo' as a Chinese cooking style during a radio interview last week. Until then, the term was unfamiliar to me!” 

That made us think: maybe there are others out there unfamiliar with the concept of Mapo? Maybe there are others scratching their heads and wondering what Mapo means? So we’ve decided to share a little story with you…

To some people, it’s known as ‘Ma Po Doufu’ and, to others, it’s more recognisable as ‘Mapo Tofu’. Whatever title you prefer, this style of tofu dish serves as yet another example of the almost limitless versatility of tofu. Oh, and for simplicity’s sake, we’re just going to go with Mapo Tofu from here forward…

Mapo Tofu originates from Sichuan province in China, and these origins are equally as interesting as the dish itself. Mapo faithfully adheres to the region’s penchant for spiciness, and is created by combining regular tofu with minced and diced beef or pork, spring onions, doubanjiang (a sauce made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, salt, rice and various spices), starch and Sichuan peppercorns.

The word ‘Mapo’ in Chinese (dialects aside) translates roughly to ‘old woman, whose face is pockmarked’. Some variations translate as ‘crater-faced old woman, pit-faced woman or pockmarked grandmother’s beancurd’. For example, ‘Ma’ from ‘Ma-zi’, means ‘pockmarks’, and ‘Po’, the first syllable of ‘Popo’, means ‘old woman’ or ‘grandmother’.

‘Pockmarked old woman’s tofu’ might sound disrespectful, especially so given the Chinese tradition of respect and veneration for their elders, but the name is actually a mark of respect for the dish’s creator, believe it or not.

During the Tongzhi reign of the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century, a woman named Chenshi was credited with coming up with this fiery favourite. She was married to the owner of a small restaurant – Chen Xingshen Restaurant – located under Wanfu Bridge in Chengdu. The restaurant was popular with street vendors, workers, oil merchants and couriers. The oil couriers would buy tofu and beef, and then ask Chenshi to cook the ingredients into a dish for them. Over time, she perfected her unique combination of Sichuan peppercorns, minced beef and tofu into a dish that would outlive her and stretch across the generations.

Some variations of the story say Chenshi experienced a bout of smallpox at some point in her life, which left her face disfigured with pockmarks, but there’s no corroborating evidence of this claim. What is beyond argument, however, is Chenshi’s face was certainly characterised by pitted skin, hence the name of what is now one of China’s most loved and recommended dishes.

The dish so outweighed in popularity every other dish on the menu the restaurant even changed its name to Chen Mapo Tofu Restaurant. And that restaurant continues to serve its Mapo Tofu to this day (see pic below).

Inside Chen Mapo Tofu Restaurant today (image: intothemiddlekingdom.com)

Inside Chen Mapo Tofu Restaurant today (image: intothemiddlekingdom.com)

While Mapo is intrinsically spicy by nature, a lot of restaurateurs outside of Asia tone down the heat, so to speak, to broaden its appeal. This is not an uncommon practice for many traditionally spicy cuisines of different ethnicities (see some Indian, Indonesian and Mexican dishes, as further examples). With Mapo Tofu being relatively simple to prepare at home, though, you get to turn up – or turn down – the fieriness according to your own palate.

Traditional Mapo Tofu recipe calls for minced pork or beef – not to mention, Sichuan peppercorns that may not be readily available at your local supermarket – but we’ve found Chenshi’s marvellous tofu creation equally as yummy as a vegan or vegetarian experience, and we've adapted it to the supplies available at most grocers. Try our Vegetarian Mapo Tofu tonight and report back with your verdict.