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Ma-po tofu, also known as mapo doufu, is a Chinese dish which originated in the province of Szechuan. Like other foods from this region of China, this dish has a very distinctive flavor which includes a burst of heat from chilies, along with a numbing sensation from the famous Szechuan peppercorn. Some Chinese restaurants outside of China offer versions of this dish, often with toned-down ingredients so that it does not overwhelm Western palates, but it can also easily be made at home. Home cooks should not be intimidated by the ingredients, as ma-po tofu does not take long to put together, and the flavor is well worth it.
The central ingredient of ma-po tofu is tofu, which may be presented in large chunks, or a slurry, in the case of dishes made with silken tofu. The heat is provided by pepper flakes as well as crushed pepper paste, along with Szechuan peppercorns and chili oil. Rice wine, to add a hint of sourness, is a common inclusion, and ingredients such as fermented black beans, sugar, soy sauce, and corn starch for thickening may also be added.
Traditionally, a plate of ma-po tofu is topped with shredded pork, which adds flavor and texture to the dish. Vegetarian versions can be made with a topping of mock duck or another meat substitute, and it is also possible to add vegetables such as shallots and cloud ear mushrooms to ma-po tofu, although some people feel that this is not authentic. The dish is prepared in a wok, with the ingredients being cooked together and allowed to simmer briefly so that the flavor permeates the tofu and it is heated through.
According to legend, ma-po tofu is named for an old woman who used to sell the dish. People sometimes refer to this dish as “pock-marked old lady tofu” in a reference to this legend. Although the existence of the mysterious pock-marked old lady has not been proved, ma-po tofu is certainly a popular Szechuan dish, and some people feel that it captures many of the essential elements of Szechuan and Chinese cuisine, as the emphasis is on heat, freshness, and simple flavors which burst in the mouth.
As is common with traditional dishes, there is a great deal of dissent about how ma-po tofu should be prepared. Some of the ingredients listed above may be rejected by purists who would argue that a dish made with these ingredients cannot truly be referred to as ma-po tofu, while others may argue that additional ingredients not mentioned here are absolutely critical to the preparation of this dish. Even within Szechuan province there is some debate about what makes this dish authentic, so cooks should not stress unduly about criticisms from people who claim that only they know how to make “the real thing.” The key to ma-po tofu, regardless as to the specific ingredients used, is a hot temperature, fresh ingredients, and a spicy flavor.
This is good stuff. I saw a Chinese TV chef make it on her show, and it looked absolutely delicious. I am friends with a family who owns a Chinese restaurant in town and asked Mr. Cai if he could make it for me -- not quite as spicy, though. He was thrilled. He went back to the kitchen and in about 20 minutes, I had the most delicious plate of food ever! It was absolutely scrumptious!