The first time I saw a plate of mapo tofu I wasn’t sure what I was looking at or what it would taste. A friend that loves spicy food had ordered it on the menu and was raving about it. It also introduced me to silken tofu. How interesting that tofu could also to made to have such delicate texture! The best way I can describe it is if sloppy joe had a spicy Chinese cousin, it would be mapo tofu! This is where I usually explain the origin of the dish but since it was supposedly named after an elderly woman’s puckered face, I’ll just leave it as this!
The main ingredients in this classic Sichuan dish are silken tofu, ground beef, black bean sauce and Sichuan peppercorns. When you say Sichuan food, you know there is going to be heat and even some light tongue numbing because of the Sichuan peppercorns. I have since veganized it and learned to love it. No worry you don’t have to set your mouth on fire but a little heat is good for the body especially in the cold winter months.
Where to get them: They can easily be bought online. I bought mine on Amazon. You can get a 4 oz bag for well under $10 and it will last you forever because 1 tbsp goes a long way (especially for Westerners not used to Sichuan heat!)
What are they? They are neither a chili pepper or peppercorn. Confusing, right? So what the heck are they? It turns out they are dried berries of the Chinese prickly ash bush.
What do they taste like: a little like a pop in the mouth followed by a light tingling of the tongue! It is quite invigorating! If you have ever used Chinese 5 star spices (Fennel seed, star anise, cinnamon, and cloves), you have tasted it.
How to prepare
Sichuan peppercorns need to be crushed either with a mortar, or with a coffee grinder to mechanically start to release some of the oil. Then cook in oil for less than a minute to fully bring out their flavor.
What can you substitute them with: I have tried using regular multi-colored peppercorn and you can make it but you won’t get the same light citrusy flavor and the brief tongue numbing experience. Who wouldn’t want that, right? Plus if kung-pao chicken is one of your favorite Chinese takeout food, you will now be able to make it thanks to your new found friend! Another good reason to get some! Plus it keeps forever. Case closed!
Black bean sauce
This sauce is kind of a specialty item that can often be found in the Asian section of your grocery store. It is more a paste than a sauce. It comes in regular black bean sauce, garlic or chili black bean sauce. All three work but if you can’t take hot food, you better stick to regular black or garlic black bean sauce. If for some reason you can’ find it, you could substitute red or brown miso paste. because both are fermented but it won’t have the same rich flavor.
This fermented paste looks almost like dark chocolate but it packed with umami. It is quite salty so start with a little, dilute it with a few tablespoons of water, garlic, oil. You can always add more if you want. Think of a more flavorful aged thick soy sauce. It can be use as a marinade or a dipping sauce. Great for stir frying, baking, grilling, and steaming! Add to a noodle soup to deepen the broth. I have never attempted to make black bean sauce from scratch because I would need to buy dried fermented black beans, then cook them down in heavily salted water. Life is short and since I can buy the sauce online too, why complicate things! By the way, don’t attempt to taste dried fermented black beans, they are way too salty! Kind of like miso paste. Always dilute!
If you order Mapo Tofu in a Chinese restaurant, you will have a dish that contains both silken tofu and ground beef as the main ingredients. Since we don’t consume cow parts we replaced the beef with vegetable ground round (like Gardein’s ground be’f). It works beautifully to add some texture to the silkiness of the tofu. You could also use a mix of mushrooms and chopped walnuts.
Note: you can use store bought chili oil if you don’t have time or have dried red chili peppers at home. It also gives the dish a nice reddish hue that you don’t get with homemade chili oil. You could add some tomato paste too if you don’t want too much heat but have the color. I like my mapo tofu to have rich red hues from the chili oil.
You now have everything you need to make this incredibly satisfying and comforting dish.
Don’t forget to make some jasmin rice.
Make some extra and have it the next day with congee for breakfast!
Meat-Free Mapo Tofu
- Mortar & pestle
- Wok or large frying pan
Sichuan peppercorn oil
- 1-2 tbsp Sichuan peppercorn
- 1/4 cup neutral oil
- 5-7 dried red chili peppers
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
Black bean sauce
- 1-2 tbsp black bean sauce
- 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh ginger
- 2 tbsp chopped garlic
- 1/2 onion finely diced
- 1/2 cup vegetable broth
- 1 tbsp dry sweetener (raw, brown sugar)
- 2 tbsp cornstarch
- 2 tbsp water
- 1 12 oz silken tofu diced
- 1-2 cups Gardein vegetable ground beef
Make the red chili oil
- Combine 1/4 cup of oil with the dried red chili in a pan. Heat up on medium heat for 3-5 minutes making sure the chilis don't burn.
- Turn off the heat and leave the peppers in the oil. Set aside.
Prepare the Sichuan pepper oil
- Grind the Sichuan peppercorns in a mortar or a coffee grinder.
- Heat up 1/4 cup of oil in a wok or large pan. Add the crushed pepper. Stir and cook for a minute.
Putting it together
- Add the finely chopped ginger to the Sichuan oil and stir. Cook for 1 minute.
- Add the finely chopped garlic and cook for another minute.
- Add the diced onion and stir. Cook for another minute or two.
- Add the Gardein vegan ground beef and stir.
- Add the 2 tbsp of black bean paste, the 1/2 cup of broth, the sugar and stir.
- Add a few tablespoons of chili oil. Stir.
- Add the cornstarch slurry (cornstarch and water) and stir.
- Simmer while gently mixing the tofu in the sauce.
- Top with chopped scallions.
- Serve with white rice.