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Friday, April 20, 2007

Ma Po Doufu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu)

Updated from the archives September 19, 2013:

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 1

My friends were recently in town to run the Disneyland Half Marathon with me and while dining at Mei Long Village - San Gabriel, I ordered Ma Po Doufu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) since my friends had never eaten it before. They were so enamored with the dish that I stopped off at the Asian grocery store and recommended they get some packages of House Foods Chinese Mabo Tofu Sauce to take back with them to Louisville.

And while they're just fine with the packaged sauce, especially with three kids and dinner to get on the table in a jiffy, I realized it's been a while since I've made Ma Po Tofu myself. While my old photos weren't bad, especially compared to many of my early pictures, it was taken with my Canon SD110. You know, the point-and-shoot with only an inch view screen.

I can do better. I've tweaked the recipe a little bit and added some step-by-step photos.

Original post below with a bit of history about the origins of the dish:

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 2

It's raining buckets here in SoCal today. Ordinarily that makes me want soup but I don't have any soup recipes in my queue, so about about something hot and spicy instead?

These are Sichuan/Szechuan/Szechwan peppercorns. Despite their name, they're not related to black peppercorns or chili peppers. However, they do create that ma la (numb hot) sensation characteristic of Sichuan cuisine.

The numbing comes in handy when eating the tons of chili peppers that are part of so many Sichuan dishes. They have a lemony flowery aroma, so you'll know if you're getting the real thing, or just lots of chili peppers instead. How numbing are they? Well, let's just say in the interests of giving first-hand testimony for my blog, I popped just one little Sichuan peppercorn hull (not even the peppercorn) in my mouth and chewed. My tongue and lips immediately felt like I got a shot of novocain.

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 3

According to Wikipedia, Sichuan peppercorns were banned from importation in the U.S. from 1968 to 2005 because they could potentially carry a citrus canker, a bacteria harmful to citrus crops. The ban was only loosely enforced until 2002. And for a while, Sichuan peppercorns were nearly impossible to find in stores or in restaurants. The ban was lifted in 2005. I recently bought a 4-oz bag of Sichuan peppercorns at the Asian grocery store for $1.99.

Ma po tofu (Chinese pockmarked old lady's tofu) is so named because of a legend about a leprous old lady who lived on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Chengdu. Her house was near a road and one night a poor farmer and his son sought shelter from a storm. So happy to have company (on account of her leprosy and all you know), she raided her meager pantry to prepare them a meal. Using just a few ounces of pork, tofu, and Sichuan peppercorns, she created a spicy, piquant, tofu dish. It was so tasty that others sought her out for the dish as well, and later named it after her.

Is this story true? There's similarities of pronunciation and form in the Chinese character for "leprous" and the character for "numb." But outside of that, I guess we'll never know.

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 4

Ma Po Doufu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu)

For about 4 servings as a side dish, you'll need:
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, or more if you can stand it
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 lb ground pork or beef
1 tblsp corn starch dissolved in 1 cup of chicken broth or water
A dozen chili peppers, or as many as you can handle
1 tblsp Chinese or Korean fermented soy bean paste or Chao/Doufu Ru (Vietnamese/Chinese Fermented Bean Curd)
1 tblsp Chinese Black Bean Sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp chili flakes
1 package soft tofu, cubed

Optional: For color, add 2 thinly sliced scallions, chopped cilantro, or diced jalapeno.

Dissolve 1 tblsp cornstarch in broth, or water, and set aside.

Mince 2 cloves garlic.

In a dry wok or saute pan on medium-high heat, lightly toast the Sichuan peppercorns to release the oils and fragrance. You can also grind the peppercorns if you wish a smoother texture. Set aside.

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 5

Then drizzle olive oil and add the minced garlic.

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Saute the minced beef or pork until mostly cooked. Drain excess fat if you wish.

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Add 1 tblsp black bean sauce, 1 tblsp fermented soy bean paste, 1 tsp soy sauce, and 1 tsp chili flakes.

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 8

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 9

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 10

Make sure to mash the sauce into the meat until thoroughly mixed.

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 11

Add the cornstarch broth and mix again.

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 12

Give it a few minutes for the cornstarch to thicken the sauce.

Meanwhile, slice tofu into 1-inch cubes. Start by halving it across the center.

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 13

Then cut into strips in the other direction.

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And finally, cube the tofu across.

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The sauce should have nicely thickened at this point.

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Add the tofu cubes, dried chili peppers, and Sichuan peppercorns. If you wish, for a bit of color, I like to add minced cilantro and sliced scallions, but I ran out this time and used a diced jalapeno instead.

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Mix thoroughly. That's it.

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Actually, this old picture wasn't too bad. I've had much worse. But it was made with firm tofu, and these days, I prefer soft silken tofu.

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 19

But you have to admit, the updated picture is more appetizing.

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 20

Serve with rice.

Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu) 21


Other tofu dishes:
Dau Hu Chien (Vietnamese Fried Tofu)
Dau Hu Chien Sot Ca Chua (Vietnamese Fried Tofu with Tomato Sauce)
Dubu Chorim (Korean Fried Tofu with Soy Sauce)
Soon Dubu Kimchee Chigae (Korean Soft Tofu Kimchee Soup)
Taiwanese Popcorn Tofu
Thit Heo Kho Dau Hu (Vietnamese Braised Pork with Tofu)
Yong Tau Foo (Chinese Stuffed Tofu)


  1. I like this dish very very very much! The ma la sensation. This will definitely make you hot, on a rainy day :D
    Oh goodness, the rain went over to your side. Tmr, it's returning to my side again :(
    I also heard about the sichuan peppercorns ban before. Apparently, these peppercorns are really powerful!

  2. Yum I love this dish but I haven't made it with the peppercorns before. You've motivated me to go look for them in the Asian grocery store. :)

  3. Hmmm. I can't take that much heat - but I might try your recipe. Sounds foolproof!

  4. That looks incredible!!!! I'm hungry and the rain makes that look like the perfect dish...move over spoup!

  5. I like to have the spice out of the ma po tofu..

  6. Greetings! I was trawling for chinese food recipes and hit upon your blog. Fabulous! Now I have another recipe source.

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. Tigerfish,
    Tomorrow, the rain is supposed to return to my side again. We're playing weather ping pong! :(

    I stumbled upon them by accident and they were so cheap, I couldn't resist.

    Just use as much as you can stand.

    You can omit the pork and easily make this vegetarian.

    The spice is what makes this dish for me.

    Welcome! Hope it's useful. :)

  8. Hi Chopsticks, Is Sichuan peppercorns a compulsory ingredient in Mapo Tofu? Do you think I can omit that and maybe just add some chopped red chilli? Sichuan peppercorns may be too spicy for me.

  9. Hi Yich,

    You can omit the Sichuan peppercorns if you want to avoid that numbing sensation. :P

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Rin,
    Oh dear, you just reminded me I need to blog the newer pictures of this recipe. The Sichuan peppercorn spicy is so different from Sriracha spicy though!

  12. Nice updates, WC. I've never cooked with those peppercorns -- too chicken!

  13. Nikki,
    You can easily make this recipe without the Sichuan peppercorns. Sometimes, they're not too pleasant to bit into! And the sauce is great without them too.

  14. Sounds so good and must make it plus the version with noodles and broth. Thank you for a simple but tasty sounding recipe!

    I love Sichuan peppercorns and tend to use more than most recipes call for. I prefer to grind mine fairly fine as I don't like biting down on one. Not because of the numbing sensation but because of its texture. The funny thing is I can't take much 'heat' from chili peppers though.


  15. Jude,
    I did say in the old version of my recipe to grind up the peppercorns, but after eating at more Sichuan restaurants since, I've seen them left whole. Either is really personal preference. I can't handle much though! Leaving them whole makes them easier for me to pick out.


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