A popular classic Chinese dish from the Sichuan province, mapo tofu is a tender tofu dish that's appetising, spicy, numbing, flavourful and umami-packed.
Not only is this a quick and easy (just 15 minutes to cook this dish!), it can easily be turned into a vegan dish by omitting the pork and still absolutely scrumptious!
Love spicy foods? I highly recommend making my (also very easy) Sichuan chilli oil! It's aromatic, crispy, numbing, spicy and can be drizzled on pretty much anything you want. Think noodles, dumplings, stir-fries, braises, etc!
Mapo tofu '麻婆豆腐' is an iconic Chinese spicy tofu dish originated from the Sichuan province.
The direct translation of 'mapo' means 'pock-marked grandma'. This dish is said to be named after an elderly lady (restaurant owner), the inventor of this dish who had pock-marks on her face.
This recipe is one that I grew up eating (in a Taiwanese household) and is a version that is milder than the authentic Sichuan version. The ones Sichuan restaurants would be spicier with a richer red colour.
So if you love spicy foods but can't take too much of them, this not too spicy mapo tofu recipe is perfect for you! Also, you can easily adjust the spiciness of this dish by adding more or less chilli powder or chilli flakes to suit your tastebuds.
- Chilli doubanjiang (chilli bean sauce) - an umami powerhouse fermented soybean paste that is can be found at most Asian grocery stores. You'll find that doubanjiang comes in spicy and non-spicy versions. Non-spicy versions are dark brown. Either are good to use, if using a non-spicy doubanjiang, simply add more chilli powder to the recipe to taste.
- Tofu - not to be mistaken with silken tofu. Soft tofu or tofu is firmer than silken tofu and ideal for cooking. They are always sold in containers filled with water to keep them hydrated. I do not recommend using firm tofu as one of the highlights of a mapo tofu is the tender softness of tofu.
- Chilli powder - can be found at most Asian grocery stores. Suitable substitute: chilli flakes (pepper flakes). Both Chinese chilli powder and flakes are sold in fairly large packets. To use them up, I suggest making my Sichuan crispy chilli oil! It is absolutely delicious and incredibly easy to make at home.
- Pork mince - substitute: chicken or beef mince. This dish is still delicious even without any meat added, making this mapo tofu vegan or vegetarian.
- Oil - like pretty much all Asian/Chinese cooking, neutral-tasting oil is preferred such as canola and sunflower except for peanut oil (the nuttiness is always welcomed). To my eagle-eyed readers, you might be able to tell the oil in the ingredients picture above look like olive oil and you're correct! I like using olive oil even when cooking Asian dishes as it is the healthier choice and plus unless you're using A LOT of olive oil, you generally can't taste the olive oil.
- Sichuan peppercorn powder (not pictured) - Unlike hot chillies, Sichuan peppercorns add a spicy, tingling, numbing sensation 'mala' to the mouth.
Mapo tofu is super easy to make with minimal prep, taking just 15 minutes from start to finish!
Preparation is key
For quick dishes like this one, it is always good practice to have all of the ingredients you need out on the kitchen counter within arm's reach before cooking begins. Just like you would when making stir-fries. This will help make the cooking process smooth and chaos-free!
To start, finely chop spring onions (scallions) and mince ginger and garlic. Set aside.
Then, gently take the tofu blocks out of the containers in which they're sold and cut the tofu into bite-size cubes. About 2 cm or 1-inch cubes. Before cutting the tofu, I like to give them a quick rinse under the tap to take out any excess 'soy' taste.
When ready to cook, sizzle ginger and garlic with oil on medium-high heat until aromatic and lightly golden. Best use a large non-stick pan or a well-seasoned wok.
Then, add in pork mince and saute on high heat until brown and almost cooked through. This will about 2 minutes.
Now, move the pork to the rims of the pan or wok to make room for doubanjiang.
Add doubanjiang in to the pan and let it sizzle and lightly caramelise through direct heat. This will 'waken' the paste up and make it taste even better and richer!
Then, add in chilli powder, soy sauce, brown sugar and ground Sichuan peppercorns (if using). Saute everything in the pan for about 30 seconds. Add 1 cup of water and bring the sauce up to a boil.
Add the tofu cubes to the pan then gently swirl the pan/wok to season the tofu with the spicy, umami pork sauce. You can also use a spatula to very gently stir and coat the tofu with the sauce so that it can take on as much flavour as possible.
Be very careful when stirring tofu as it can break very easily!
Simmer the tofu with the sauce for about 5 minutes on the lowest heat, swirling/mixing about halfway through. Taste the sauce and adjust for salt if desired.
To finish off, thicken the sauce with a cornstarch and cold water mixture (cornstarch slurry). Sprinkle with finely sliced spring onions and simmer for a final 30 seconds.
If desired, you can also finish this dish off with some homemade chilli oil to amplify the spiciness and aroma.
How to serve mapo tofu
Best serve mapo tofu nice and hot with freshly steamed rice! Just this is a delicious and healthy meal itself. You can add a side of sauteed or steamed leafy vegetables to up your veg game too.
Very often, mapo tofu is served with a couple of other main dishes completed with rice, particularly when serving a family of 4+ people.
Useful tips and tricks
- Handle tofu very gently - they break easily! When stirring, take extra care to avoid breaking them apart as they can turn mush like very easily. As such, keep stirring with a spatula to a minimum.
- When thickening the sauce, swirl the pan rather than stir with a spatula. This will minimise the risk of tofu breaking. Watch my video below in the recipe card for reference.
- Tofu takes on flavours really well and turn silky, creamy, tender soft once cooked! Thus, even though they can be consumed straight out of the packet/container, simmering for 5 minutes on low heat will result in much more flavoursome and delicious, tender tofu.
- Add more or less chilli and Sichuan peppercorn to suit your tastebuds. You can also add fresh chilli into this dish for that extra kick!
Good to know (FAQs)
Absolutely! This dish is packed with lots of protein and tofu is also rich in vitamins and minerals. Not only is mapo tofu healthy, it's also super appetising!
Although still quite different, you can use miso instead or fermented black beans due to their rich umami (savouriness) characteristics. Both of these are not spicy and thus you'd need to add more chilli powder or chilli flakes to the recipe.
So that tofu stay fresh and retain its tender soft texture!
Mapo tofu is best served hot as the spiciness tends to weaken when they're cold.
Any leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to 4 days in airtight containers and up for to 2 to 3 months in the freezer. However, I would not recommend freezing tofu as the texture changes and becomes less tender soft, spongey and firm.
I would not recommend cooking this dish ahead as it does not take long to cook and tastes best fresh.
Made this recipe? Let me know your thoughts or questions by dropping a note in the comments section below! I'd love to hear from you. 🙂
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- 500 g / 1 pound tofu NOT 'silken' tofu, cut into small 2 cm/1 inch cubes
- 250 g / 9 ounces pork mince substitutes: chicken or beef mince
- 1 cm ginger minced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 tablespoon spicy doubanjiang or non-spicy ones (note 1)
- 1 teaspoon chilli powder 2 teaspoon for extra spicy. Substitute: chilli flakes
- ¼ teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorn (can be optional)
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- 3 tablespoon oil
- 2 spring onions aka scallions, finely sliced
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- ½ cup cold water
- In a large non-stick pan or wok, fry garlic and ginger on medium heat with oil until lightly golden and aromatic.
- Add pork mince and brown on high heat, breaking the chunks apart with a spatula.
- Push the pork mixture to the rims of the pan, making room in the middle of the pan/wok. Add spicy doubanjiang and fry on medium heat to 'wake the spice' up, for about 1 minute. Add in chilli powder, sugar and Sichuan peppercorn (if using). Mix everything in the pan well.
- Add soy sauce and 1 cup of water. Mix well then gently add tofu cubes. Lift the pan/wok off the stove and gently swirl the pan to combine tofu with the pork sauce. Bring up to a boil then reduce heat to low and simmer (without a lid) for 3 - 5 minutes.
- To make the thickening mixture, combine cold water with cornstarch and mix well. Pour the thickening mixture into the pan and gently swirl the pan to thicken the sauce and coat the tofu.
- Sprinkle spring onions into the pan, simmer for a further 30 seconds then serve.