Mapo tofu a spicy classic

Julie Falsetti
  • Add more bean sauce with chili for a spicier dish.
  • Start the rice before you begin the stir fry.

Some things are best left untranslated.

This is certainly true of the famous Szechuan Chinese dish mapo tofu. Translated from the Chinese, “pock-marked old woman’s tofu” would not be a top seller on any American menu. The Chinese, though, value tradition and taste rather than trendy names, and mapo tofu commemorates a legendary dish created in the city of Chengdu.

The story goes like this. In the late 1800s, an old woman disfigured by smallpox opened a makeshift roadside stand on the outskirts of town. Most of her customers were poor transport workers.

Her restaurant thrived because of its low prices and mouth-watering dishes. Her specialty was a tofu dish, and her customers couldn’t get enough of it. Soon wealthy people started to come and request “ma po tofu.”

The reputation continued to spread far and wide. Now there are versions of it in every Chinese restaurant, as well as Japanese and Korean restaurants. What could be a better compliment than having a world-famous dish named after you?

Like most dishes of Szechuan origin, mapo tofu is hot and spicy. If you think of tofu as bland, this dish will quickly change your mind.

Unlike many Szechuan dishes —which require a lot of preparation — this one comes together in minutes. So, before you begin, put on a pot of rice to cook.

The recipe below is somewhat adapted to Western tastes. If you like really hot foods, you can double or triple the bean sauce with chili.

Chinese ingredients can be found in some supermarkets, but the best (and cheapest) place I’ve found for Asian ingredients is Foodmart next to the Penn Street Market in downtown York City.

Mapo Tofu

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger

3 scallions, finely sliced into rounds

1 pound extra firm tofu, drained and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

The Sauce

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1/2 cup stock or water

1 teaspoon black bean sauce with chili

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Add all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and mix well. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a wok or cast iron frying pan over a medium-high flame. When hot, put in the garlic and ginger. Stir fry for 10 seconds. Add the scallions and stir fry for 5 seconds. Then add the tofu (bean curd) and stir fry for 1 minute.

Lower the flame and add the sauce. Stir gently until the sauce thickens.

Serve with rice.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section.