As autumn rolls around, there’s nothing that feels more comforting to the soul than rich, spicy dishes. If I’m being totally honest, I love spicy food year-round. It’s as common for Chongqingers to say that they eat spicy food in the summer to sweat and cool themselves down, as it is for them to claim it warms them up in the winter.
Mapo tofu is a Chinese dish that is now ubiquitous throughout the world, but it originated centuries ago from the Sichuan province, in my hometown of Chengdu. So it should come as no surprise that the version nearest and dearest to my heart is the original, numbingly-spicy version of the dish, one that I grew up with in my household.
I’ve found that there are three ingredients that trademark mapo tofu: chili bean paste (豆瓣), fermented black beans (豆豉), and of course, Sichuan pepper. In my opinion, omitting any of these three ingredients distinctly changes the dish, so I’d caution against substitutions.
Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
1 lb (450g) medium-firm tofu*
5 oz (115g) ground meat*
1 scallion stalk, chopped
1 tbsp (15mL) chili bean paste
1 tbsp (15mL) fermented black beans
1 tbsp (20g) minced garlic
1 tbsp (8g) minced ginger
1 tsp (5g) dried chili peppers
3 tsp (3g) finely ground Sichuan peppercorns
1/4 tsp (1g) ground black pepper
5 tbsp cooking oil
Boil water and pour into a bowl. Add salt and mix well.
While the water is boiling, cut the tofu into medium-sized cubes. Add the cubes to the water to soak and soften.
Grind the peppercorns. Set aside about half for garnish later.
Grind the rest of the peppercorns, black pepper, and dried chilies in a food processor or mortar and pestle.
Chop the scallions, and set aside.
Mince the garlic and ginger, and set aside.
In a pan that can handle high heat (I used a flat-bottomed wok), heat a tablespoon of cooking oil and cook the ground meat, making sure to salt it. Break it up into little pieces. Remove and set aside.
Adjust the heat to medium heat, and add the rest of the cooking oil until the wok begins to smoke. Add the chili bean paste, black beans, ginger, and garlic, stir-frying patiently while the mixture blooms and the colors deepen.
Add the ground spice mix, continuously stirring to make sure heat is being distributed evenly. Add a splash or broth or water as needed to deglaze the wok bottom.
Drain the tofu, and add the cubes and beef back to the wok, gently spooning sauce over them.
Top with the scallions and ground peppercorn.
Serve immediately with rice.*
Soft or firm tofu can be used. If using soft tofu, be gentle when cooking the cubes.
Any type of ground meat should work, but I prefer ground beef.
This dish is great as leftovers the next day. It can revive leftover, dried out rice very well!
Since I was a little kid, 担担面 (dan dan noodles) have been a staple when my family orders at Chinese restaurants. The first time I went back to visit Chengdu, my hometown, I’d beg my mom to let me eat them every day. My flavor of choice for most Chinese foods is 麻辣 (mala), the quintessential numb-spicy taste ubiquitous in Sichuan cuisine. In major cities in Sichuan (such as Chongqing, where most of my family lives), dan dan mian is street food, served for 15RMB and scarfed down as a quick lunch on a workday. Despite originating in Sichuan, most dan dan main variations in the rest of the world tend towards a sweet peanut sauce. If you’re looking for that variation, you’re in the wrong place. I like my dan dan mian with a formidable mala kick.
Something else that Chinese food is known for is including gluten and meat in everything. Even veggie dishes are often cooked in animal stock or lard, resulting in a fattier, richer umami taste. Dan dan mian is typically not gluten-free because it contains soy sauce and noodles. In this recipe, we swap out soy sauce for coconut aminos, and wheat noodles for buckwheat noodles, both of which are great gluten-free substitutes. The minced topping in dan dan mian is made from minced mushroom instead!
Ingredients (serves 2)
Minced Mushroom Topping:
蘑菇 100g mushrooms, minced*
姜 1 tbsp ginger, minced
胡椒 2 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns, ground**
辣椒 2 dried chili peppers, ground**
椰子酱油 3 tbsp coconut aminos
醋 1 tbsp vinegar (I used rice wine vinegar)
芽菜 2 tbsp preserved vegetable**
芝麻酱 2 tbsp tahini
芝麻油 1 tbsp sesame oil
辣油 1 tbsp chili oil
荞麦面条 100g buckwheat noodles
小白菜 2 baby bok choy bundles
香葱 1 tbsp thinly sliced scallions
In a food processor, grind the ginger, peppercorns, and chili peppers. I like to roughly chop the ginger before putting it in the food processor.
In a pan that can handle high heat (a wok works best, but stainless steel worked great in my case), heat a copious amount of oil with a high smoke point (I used avocado oil) until it’s hot. What we’re trying to replicate is the hot flash cooking method typically used with a wok. You’ll want to use a generous amount of oil so the mushrooms are properly fried.
Add the mixture of spices from the food processor and let them sizzle until you can smell the aroma (about a minute).
Add the minced mushrooms and cook for about two minutes. The oil should coat the mushrooms.
Add the preserved vegetable, along with soy sauce, chili oil, and vinegar, tweaking the ratio of the three by tasting and adding a splash more of whatever you feel is missing.
For the sesame sauce, mix the tahini, sesame oil, and chili oil in small bowl, adjusting the ratio of the three until it fits your liking. I like my sauce a little runnier, so I also mixed in a few tablespoons of water until the consistency was right.
For the noodles, bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and the boy choy leaves and turn the heat down to medium, cooking for 5 minutes. Drain the water.
Portion out the noodles and bok choy into two bowls. Pour the sauce over the noodles, add as much of the minced topping as you’d like, and garnish with scallions. Toss immediately to prevent the noodles from drying out and clumping together, and enjoy!
Notes: * Shiitake mushrooms have worked best for me. ** Amazon sells 芽菜 (preserved vegetable), dried chilis, and Sichuan peppercorns, but these ingredients can also be purchased at most Asian supermarkets. *** The key to all cooking is to continuously test as you go along! This is definitely true for both the mince and the sauce.