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Mapo Tofu

Easily one of the most — if not *the* most — popular Sichuan dishes outside of China, mapo tofu is probably the most accessible entry point into Sichuan's "mala" (ma = "numbing", la = "heat/spiciness") flavor profile. This dish is so quick to pull together that I can start my rice cooker and easily have this dish on the table before the rice is ready.

There are a couple tricky ingredients to source here, depending on where you live: Pixian doubanjiang, douchi, heaven-facing chili, and sichuan peppercorn. With the exception of heaven-facing chili, these are fundamental to this dish so they're worth tracking down.

Every Chinese grocery store I've ever been to has carried these, so if you've got one nearby, you're probably good to go. If you don't, Amazon carries the standard brands, but my absolute favorites come from themalamarket.com. (We have no relationship with them, they just import amazing Sichuan ingredients.)

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Yield

4 servings (with rice)

Time

About 30 total (20 active)

Ingredients

500gchicken or veg stock (or water)400gtofu (medium-firm)100gground meat (beef/pork/plant-based)100gcold water50gPixian doubanjiang20ggarlic20gginger20gdouchi15gstarch (potato, corn, etc)5gdried chili flakes (pref. heaven-facing chili)5gwhite peppercorn3green onions2gSichuan peppercornneutral oil

Instructions

1Prep
Once we start frying, this dish is going to come together super fast, so we need to prep everything ahead of time.

Bring a saucepan of salted water up to a boil.

Drain tofu and slice into 1/2-inch cubes. A standard tofu block should yield about 40 cubes.

Trim green onions and chop into 1-inch segments.

Mince (or crush) garlic and ginger.

Rinse douchi under running water.

Grind chili flakes, sichuan peppercorns, and white peppercorns into a fine powder.

Whisk 100g of water into your starch. Go slowly to prevent lumps from forming.

Once your saucepan comes to a boil, cut the heat, add tofu, and cover.

2Fry
100gmeat50gdoubanjiang20ggarlic20ggingercooking oil

Preheat a skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add just enough oil to thinly cover the bottom of the pan. It should start shimmering almost immediately, but not smoke (if it smokes, reduce the heat).

Add your ground meat and brown until it just begins to become crispy and the water is mostly evaporated.

Push the meat off to the side of the pan and add garlic and ginger. Fry just until they become fragrant — maybe 30 seconds.

Add doubanjiang and stir into the oil to turn it bright red (this kinda depends on the amount of oil you have, so if it doesn't turn bright red, you may need to add a little more).

Mix everything together to coat in the red oil.

3Simmer
500gstock (or water)25grinsed douchitofugreen onions

Add stock to pan and scrape up any bits fried onto the pan. Add douchi.

Gently transfer tofu cubes from their saltwater bath into the main pan.

Bring to a low boil for 5-10 minutes. The stock should reduce by about half and the tofu should begin to take on a reddish-tan hue.

Stir in green onions.

4Thicken
If the liquid isn't boiling, the starch won't thicken it and you'll end up adding too much. Make sure it's actually boiling.
Be gentle with the spice blend. It's diluted with extra white peppercorn to give a little margin for error, but the numbing sensation can be overwhelming to newcomers and it's always easy to add more at the table.
starch slurrychili/peppercorn blend

Turn up your heat to bring mixture to a fast boil.

Whisk your slurry back together and add a little bit at a time until the sauce becomes glossy and slightly thickened (the standard is kind of a thin gravy consistency, but feel free to adjust to your preference). You'll probably have a little slurry left over.

Cut the heat and stir in a little bit of the spice mix at a time. Taste and add more spice or slurry if you want it.

5Serve

Serve with bowls of short grain rice and extra spice mix on the side.