A few months back two of my nearest and dearest friends cooked me this totally amazing tofu dish. The sauce was super rich and unctuous; it had this incredible depth of flavor and just the right amount of chili heat. I was completely blown away and vowed to one day make it myself.
It took me a lot longer than I’d hoped to do this. This autumn has been stupid-busy and I kept forgetting to ask my friends for their recipe. But the other morning I woke up with a peculiar phrase in my head: “pock-marked granny’s tofu.” At first I thought this was some weird message from the ether, but actually it was my brain reminding me of the name of the dish I’d had all those weeks ago: mapo doufu, AKA pock-marked woman’s bean curd, pock-marked granny’s bean curd, or pock-marked Mother Chen’s bean curd.
Turns out the dish is somewhat legendary and has numerous origin stories told about it. The identity of the original mapo (literally, pockmarked old lady) is the subject of much debate, although many claim she lived in Chengdu. Whoever she was, we owe a lot to her because this is a seriously good eat.
This recipe is my humble take on the dish. Mapo doufu traditionally has minced beef or pork in it as well as tofu; I switched this out with finely diced mushrooms. When I get a chance I want to try different mince-replacers (extra tofu or seitan or legumes). If you try these out yourselves please let me know how it goes!
Mapo Doufu (Pock-marked Granny’s Tofu)
Preparation time: 50 minutes (including tofu pressing time)
400 g firm tofu (net weight)
150 g white or brown mushrooms
5 spring onions
3-4 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2.5 tablespoons Sichuanese chilli bean paste
1 heaped tablespoon fermented (salted) black beans
2-3 small red chillies
250 ml vegetable stock
1 tablespoon sugar or date syrup (or sweetener of your choice)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3 tablespoons cornflour mixed with 5 tablespoons cold water
1-2 teaspoons ground Sichuanese pepper
Salt (to taste)
1. Press the tofu for at least 20 minutes. Do this by placing it between two plates and weighing the top one down with a heavy book or similar.
2. In the meantime, prepare the vegetables. Finely slice the spring onions, dice the mushrooms, and mince the chilies.
3. Once it’s pressed, pour the water off the tofu and chop it into cubes of about 2 cm. Assemble all the ingredients together because you’ll need to access them in relatively quick succession.
4. Heat the sesame oil in a wok over a medium-high heat. Add the garlic, mushrooms, and a pinch of salt, and fry for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Turn the heat down a little (to medium), then add the chili bean paste. Stir this into the garlic-mushroom mixture and heat for 30 seconds.
6. Add the fermented black beans and the minced chilies and heat these for a further 30 seconds or so.
7. Add the sugar and the soy sauce, then the vegetable stock. Stir the mixture together and let cook for a couple of minutes.
8. Gently add the tofu to the sauce. Make sure it’s fully mixed in but be careful- you don’t want to break it up. Add half the spring onions to the mixture and let the whole thing simmer for about 10 minutes.
9. Now start to add the cornflour mixture. Start by adding half, stirring as you do, and keep an eye on the texture of the sauce. In the end it should be glossy and just thick enough to cling to the tofu. Add a little more, bit-by-bit, if you need.
10. Take off the heat and sprinkle with the Sichuanese pepper and the remaining spring onions. Serve immediately. I like this with brown rice and garlicky broccoli or other greens.
Thanks to mapo and thanks to my friends!
More vegan tofu recipes: Southern BBQ Tofu
Also see: Beginner’s Guide to Tofu
Photo: Emily Wilkinson