Residents of Chengdu, the lively capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, are known as enthusiastic idlers, a reputation owed to a passion for tea gardens, cards and mah-jongg and good food.
No local specialty is more treasured than mapo tofu, a sumptuous melange of silky firm bean curd, chopped meat and suanmiao (a local leek) cooked in liberal amounts of oil with black beans, chili-beanpaste, soy sauce and dried chilies. Before it is served, the dish is thickly dusted with ground huajiao (also known as Sichuan pepper), the fruit of a type of prickly ash tree that leaves a tingle on lips and tongue.
For British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop, author of ‘Sichuan Cookery’ (published in the U.S. under the title ‘Land of Plenty’), mapo tofu’s ‘bold, striking flavors and comforting, sort of lazy texture’ are a culinary embodiment of Chengdu’s split personality: ‘A vibrant city whose inhabitants are known for taking a laid-back approach to life,’ says Ms. Dunlop.
Mapo tofu — which means ‘pockmarked old lady’s bean curd’ or, more politely, ‘pockmarked mother’s bean curd’ (ma means pockmarked and po means mother or lady) — is named for its inventor, a woman named Chen who, in late 19th-century Chengdu, ran a food shop called Wanfu Qiao (Wanfu Bridge) with her husband. The restaurant’s existence, Ms. Dunlop notes, is substantiated by its mention in ‘Chengdu Tonglan: A General View of Chengdu,’ a guide to the city’s famous eateries and street snacks published in 1909.
Wanfu Qiao sat outside the city wall’s north gate, along a route traversed by laborers lugging rapeseed oil (a type of vegetable oil still used in Sichuan) to market. Ms. Dunlop speculates that one day the porters gave Chen Mapo some oil and requested that she make them something with bean curd. Heeding the Sichuanese penchant for ma-la (numbing and spicy flavors), she added plenty of dried chilies and huajiao (Sichuan pepper) to her bean curd dish and served it in a pool of chili-hued oil.
The owners of Chen Mapo Tofu, a chain of restaurants in contemporary Chengdu, maintain that their shops are directly descended from the late 19th-century original. It’s a claim that’s impossible to verify, though Ms. Dunlop thinks it may have merit because when the Chinese Communists nationalized privately owned restaurants in the 1950s, they usually left the businesses’ family names intact.
Overseas Chinese restaurant versions of mapo tofu rarely pack the ma-la punch of the real thing, probably because most restaurant owners hail from chili-phobic southern China, but also because the processing that huajiao must undergo for export robs it of fragrance and flavor.
Mapo tofu is a lunch or dinner food to be enjoyed — depending on the occasion and the company — with a simple stir-fried green vegetable or an array of cold starters, other main dishes and soup. In Chengdu, you’re rarely more than a city block from a passable version, whether it’s served in an establishment dripping with gold leaf and crystal chandeliers or a rustic open-air eatery run by a lone cook working a single wok.
The dish is also a comfort food well-suited to preparation at home. According to Chinese-American Zuo Ziying, who was born in Chengdu and who conducts tours in southwest China for Lotus Culinary Travel, jiachang or home-style versions of mapo tofu are usually less oily and more simple than those cooked in restaurant kitchens. When Ms. Zuo prepares the dish at home, ‘I make it with just tofu cubes and some chili oil, and not so much bean-paste.’ And she often substitutes chopped scallion greens for suanmiao (the local leek).
Chilies both warm the body and induce a cooling sweat, so mapo tofu is a dish made-to-order for Chengdu’s perennially humid climate, with its bone-chilling winters and oppressively muggy summers.
‘Each place makes it a different way,’ says Ms. Zuo, ‘but the style served at Chen Mapo Tofu’ — with a generous pool of oil, lengths of suanmiao, heavy-duty spice and browned beef (some cooks substitute pork) — ‘is authentic.’
Foreigners are often put off by mapo tofu’s characteristic slick of oil, but Ms. Dunlop says, ‘It was an oil carrier’s dish, so it should be oily.’ The dish, she adds, should also boast a ‘wonderful deep-red glossiness because the chilies have thoroughly colored the oil.’ A generous sprinkling of fragrant ground huajiao — Sichuan pepper — just before serving is essential.
Firm yet tender bean curd that holds its shape during cooking — ‘When you cook it you just sort of nudge the tofu with the back of a spoon to mix but not break it,’ is essential, advises Ms. Dunlop. A thick, luxurious beef sauce flavored with salty and spicy chili-bean-paste (preferably from Sichuan’s Pixian County, home to the province’s oldest chili-bean-paste workshop) lend the dish its over-the-top taste and plush texture.
The dish can convert even the most die-hard bean-curd sceptics, says Ms. Dunlop, speaking from experience. ‘It’s just so delicious that most people, who normally won’t eat tofu because they think it’s boring, love it.’