Explainer / What is mapo tofu and where did it get its ugly name? Top Hong Kong chefs at Mora and Grand Majestic Sichuan on why the spicy Sichuan staple became one of Asia’s most iconic dishes

Mapo tofu features a delicate balance of spicy, numbing, salty, sweet and umami flavours. Photo: Grand Majestic Sichuan

It’s a dish that stems from humble origins, though its name does little to stoke an appetite. Mapo tofu is said to have originated in Chengdu in the late 1800s. Ma translates to “pockmarks”, while po refers to an older woman. Together these reference the dish’s inventor, Mrs Chen, an elderly woman with smallpox scars.

As the story has been retold over the years, this remark is remembered as something of an endearing nickname. Whether that’s true or not, Mrs Chen was revered for the dish, and her creation has become a staple of Sichuan cuisine.

Traditionally made by stewing minced beef with tofu and a blend of spices, today it’s commonly made with pork or vegetarian substitutes.

Theign Yie Phan, chef at Grand Majestic Sichuan. Photo: Handout

“Mapo tofu is one of the most famous Sichuan dishes, and epitomises the spicy generosity of the cooking of the region,” explains chef Theign Yie Phan of Grand Majestic Sichuan. The Sichuan restaurant, in Central, sticks with tradition and uses beef, elevating the dish with Wagyu beef short rib “for its rich flavour and perfect balance of tender meat and fat”.

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The success of the dish rests not only on the delicate balance of flavours, but also on the textures. “The tofu should be tender and silky smooth, made with high-quality soybeans that give a nice aroma, or dou xiang in Chinese,” says Phan. “The flavours need to be very balanced, the ma (numbing effect) from the Sichuan peppercorn and the la (spice) from the chilli bean paste do not overpower the dish but instead complement the umami of the meat.”

To prepare the dish, executive chef Sze Chiu-kwan of Dong Lai Shun, in Tsim Sha Tsui, fries numbing peppercorns in oil to extract their rich citrus flavour and aroma. Once crushed, the Sichuan peppercorns are then stir-fried with ground beef, ginger, chilli oil and fermented bean paste. The ingredients are then stewed with spring onions and chicken broth before the final dish is thickened using a cornflour slurry.

Mora’s mapo tofu recipe changes over the months to reflect the seasonality of ingredients. Photo: Handout

Chef Vicky Lau of Mora says both mince and hand-chopped meat work well in the dish “depending on the viscosity of your sauce”. But the importance here is in the fat content and ensuring the meat isn’t too lean. “It’s also nice to explore options with no meat,” she explains.

Mora’s menu celebrates the versatility of the humble soy bean, and its mapo tofu recipe proves no exception. “We use two kinds of tofu, one soft version for that slippery mouth feel and one honeycomb tofu, to soak up all the sauce,” she adds. The accompanying ingredients change depending on seasonality, while the current iteration includes 10 types of mushrooms of varied textures and flavours.

“Sichuan cuisine is often misunderstood,” says Phan. “There is an expectation that all of the dishes within the cuisine are going to be a certain kind of spicy, but most dishes from the region do not fall into that category. Great Sichuan food is about forming an overall symphony of flavours in any recipe so that the profiles are clear and can be experienced.”

Interiors at Mora, a contemporary restaurant dedicated to celebrating the humble soybean. Photo: Handout

To create such a symphony, says Phan, Grand Majestic Sichuan makes each component itself, from the chilli bean paste to the mala sauce, to the chilli oil, carefully crafting these recipes in house in order to achieve a specific combination of flavour profiles and aromas.

In truth, Mapo tofu’s components are simple, says Lau: “Slippery smooth tofu, ground beef – if you are going for a traditional version – chilli bean paste and fermented beans, and lip-tingling Sichuan pepper.” But combined, these simple ingredients deliver big, contrasting flavours.

“It’s a rich, intense dish,” adds Lau. “The first attraction is the hot boiling smell from the chilli bean paste, mixed with meat and scallions. When you start savouring it, the smooth tofu immediately brings a comforting feeling and the ground meet gives it a deeper bite. The lip-tingling Sichuan pepper leaves a long, fragrant aftertaste.”

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Chef Phan’s tips for cooking mapo tofu at home

1. Blanch the tofu in warm, salty water before cooking it. This is a step that will help any at-home cook season the tofu completely.

2. Use Wagyu beef short rib, which gives the dish a rich flavour and balance of tender meat and fat. Hand-chopped beef gives more texture to the dish.

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  • From humble origins in 19th century Chengdu, the dish’s silky tofu and Sichuan peppercorn base is still being interpreted in new way ways – despite its less than savoury etymology
  • Grand Majestic Sichuan’s Theign Yie Phan and Mora’s Vicky Lau are among the chefs giving a modern twist to mapo tofu’s unmistakably spicy ‘symphony of flavours’