This is it. My favorite dish in the world and the grandmother of Sichuan cuisine. Translated literally as “pock-marked grandmother’s tofu,” its totally apocryphal origin story is identical to a half dozen other food origins: it starts with hungry crowds and a cook with few ingredients but plenty of creativity. The result is an inexpensive stew that uses simple ingredients—soft tofu, ground meat (beef or pork), fermented chili bean paste, a handful of sichuan peppercorns, and plenty of red-hot chili oil—to create simple, soul-satisfying fare.
I very rarely get visibly excited about anything—I’m not sure if that makes me a stoic, or an emotionless shell of a human being—but as we sat down at Chen Mapo Doufu, the upscale Chengdu institution that was supposedly built on the fame and recipe of Grandma Chen herself, I got a little giddy.
You can find mapo doufu on the menu at almost any restaurant in China, especially in Sichuan, but this version, served in a screaming-hot cast iron bowl was easily the best. Tender cubes of silken tofu laced with tender ground beef under a bubbling layer of chili oil, fragrant with toasted Sichuan peppercorn and fermented horse beans. It doesn’t have the blast of chili heat you might expect from looking at it. Rather, it has a more subtle, layered heat with chilies that come through alternately as sweet and hot with the rich, almost raisin-like flavor of dried fruit.
I’m happy to say that the best version I’ve had in the states, made by a Sichuan chef at Fuloon, in Malden, MA is a near perfect taste-alike to the one at Chen. I’m even happier to report that the chef was kind enough to share his techniques and recipe with me a few years back. I even spent the time developing those techniques into a full-fledged vegetarian version that I like even better than the meaty one.
Mapo literally means a woman with a pock-marked face, doufu means “bean curd,” A common Sichuan dish, Mapo doufu is bean curd dish flavored with many spices, including chopped scallions, minced garlic, minced fresh ginger, Chinese chilli-sauce or crushed dried red chilli-peppers and flower peppercorn.