Mapo Tofu – a not-so-authentic attempt at a Sichuan classic

Mapo Tofu is a dish I have always wanted to try but whenever I enter a Chinese restaurant, I always end up ordering a lot of dim sum instead of opting to look at other dishes on the menu. What can I say? I absolutely love cheung fun, bao and har gow. It’s been a very long time since I first heard of mapo tofu and while my first experience may not be an authentic experience, it will be an experience nonetheless.

I first heard of mapo tofu from an anime I watched a few years ago; Angel Beats!, a high school comedy drama set in the afterlife. I won’t be explaining the anime in any capacity, but my favourite character in the anime, a girl called Tachibana Kanade, eats mapo tofu on several occasions. The main protagonist, Otonashi Yuzuru, also ends up eating the mapo tofu, describing it as an extremely spicy dish with a very pleasant aftertaste.

Kanade eating mapo tofu at the end of episode 5 of Angel Beats!

I burned this moment into the retinas of my eyes and now, a few years later, I get to try it for the first time. My ability to cook has gotten better, although if that weren’t the case, I’d be worried; I didn’t start cooking until I started studying at university so I had no prior experience. I picked up a lot of skills and a good sense of smell through my obversations of my parents but never got the opportunity to cook for myself or my family. Nowadays, that’s different and I regularly cook for my siblings and I cook occasionally for my parents.

Now back to the original topic, mapo tofu. I used a few recipes as a reference to cook the dish but I have never used 2 of the ingredients required for the dish; doubanjiang and sichuan peppercorns. This makes sense since I don’t come from a sichuan cooking background – I have more experience with Vietnamese and Japanese dishes – so looking out for the highest quality ingredients was tough. I just ended up buying whatever I found first because in the end, this is my first experience and I’m not expecting a Michelin-grade dish.

From top right and clockwise: doubanjiang, soy sauce, sichuan peppercorns, granulated sugar, ginger (badly grated), garlic, spring onions. Excuse the lighting, it was a dark day and I don’t have lighting equipment, I’m still very new to photography.

I’ll link the recipes I used at the end of the blog and using the information from these recipes I used the following ingredients:

  • doubanjiang (or spicy broad bean paste)
  • sichuan peppercorns
  • ginger
  • garlic
  • soy sauce
  • sugar
  • minced beef
  • tofu
  • spring onion
  • sesame oil
  • water
  • cornstarch

I don’t like using measurements (although I should sometimes) and prefer tasting the dish as I go along, which is probably normal because otherwise, how else would you know how it tastes like before you serve it? Anyway, I was surprised at how little goes in to the dish, I was expecting a lot more in terms of spices but I guess sometimes less is more.

So with all the ingredients prepared, it’s time to cook! Heat up my pan and add sesame oil. Toss in the minced beef and cook until brown. Add in the garlic and ginger and mix it about. Add the doubanjiang. Mix it about again and make sure it looks red. Add some water. Soy sauce and sugar in together. A little spring onion. Tofu in. Cornstarch to thicken. Sounds pretty easy to be honest. And the end result?

I will start off by saying that when I tasted it during cooking, I was content with it. When my siblings and my mum tried it though, they all found it way too salty and I agree. I added way too much doubanjiang to get the colour right and when I tasted it, the sauce wasn’t as concentrated so it tasted less salty. I left it a little too long on the cooker as my siblings weren’t ready to eat at the time I finished cooking and the sauce ended up reducing quite a bit. But hey, I enjoyed it and my siblings had some extra rice on the side and cleaned their bowls. They also had a lot of water. But overall, not too bad for a first try.

I had 2 complaints with it: the dish was not spicy at all and I didn’t add enough sichuan peppercorns on top. I feel like the doubanjiang I bought looks a whole lot more intimidating than it actually is, so next time, I’ll add chilli flakes during cooking.

Fast forward to the next day and I have some spare ingredients lying around. Time for round 2! The ingredients were the same except for 2 additions, chilli flakes and shiitake mushrooms, and 1 deduction, spring onion.

My second attempt at mapo tofu, this time for breakfast.

This time, I tasted it more frequently during cooking, especially to judge the spice levels and oh my, it was tasting like something special. I served it to my sister with some rice and she tried a spoonful. Instantly, she said it was better and she ate it quickly. I actually had 2 bowls of mapo tofu; this attempt was a great success. It was sweeter, it was spicier, it was more mouth-numbing, it was way less salty, it was a complete success.

How does it compare to my expectations? Well, I was expecting something so insanely spicy that I wouldn’t feel right for the day but I’m happy it didn’t turn out that way. I’m also surprised at how easy it is to make, although authenticity may be lacking. Will I cook it again? Hell yeah I would.


MyAnimeList entry for Angel Beats!:

goreshit – Burn This Moment Into the Retina of My Eye on Spotify:
the url is long

Adam Liaw’s video on mapo tofu on YouTube and accompanying article:

The Woks of Life Mapo Tofu recipe:

China Sichuan Food Mapo Tofu recipe:

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