I remember eating in the Chengdu restaurant where mapo doufu (tofu) was invented. Summer of 2001, noisy, high ceilings, whitewashed walls, curt service. Perfectly complex, spicy lava of sauce surrounding slippery tofu, topped with numbing Sichuan peppercorns. I ate mapo tofu countless times while living in China, always pulling the waiter aside to chat and make sure they could make a veg version of it, without the sprinkling of pork. While living in Nanjing, a Sichuanese friend taught me how to make a delicious vegan mapo tofu. His mother ran a hotpot restaurant in Dazhou, a small city in Sichuan province, and he had excellent cooking instincts. I have followed his method all of these years, at times even teaching it to Chinese friends from other provinces who didn’t grow up with mapo tofu.
Friends here in California have often asked me for my mapo tofu recipe. Here I have finally written it down for you – I generally just make it by feel. There are many vegan mapo tofu recipes online that replace the pork with sautéed mushrooms. That tastes fine, however I was never served mapo tofu with mushrooms in China. Instead, my friend taught me to amp up the flavor by increasing the garlic and ginger. I’ve also seen some recipes written in the West that merely combine ingredients quickly in a skillet before serving right away. You need to let this dish simmer on a significantly hot flame for roughly 6-8 minutes to let the sauce soak into the tofu.
This is an easy weeknight recipe to pull together if you have the right ingredients. The crucial ingredients to source are broad bean paste, (doubanjiang) and Sichuan peppercorns (huajiao). They are available in Chinese supermarkets as well as online. If you have several choices of doubanjiang, choose a paste with a darker red rust color instead of pale orange, and make sure it is broad bean paste and not a soy bean paste or generic bean paste. Sichuan peppercorns are available whole or ground. I buy them whole and grind them fresh in my spice grinder, which is an old coffee grinder dedicated to spices. Also look for fermented black beans to add umami saltiness. Slippery silken tofu is the texture of the original mapo tofu, but homestyle versions use any firmness of tofu. Choose the tofu on the firmness spectrum that speaks to you.
MY VEGAN MAPO TOFU
2 tablespoons light oil
6 cloves of garlic
an equivalent amount of ginger
1.5 – 2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns (huajiao), divided
3 tablespoons broad bean sauce (doubanjiang)
2 teaspoons fermented black beans
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1.5 cups vegetable broth or water
1 block tofu cut into centimeter cubes
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 cup cold water
Mince the garlic and ginger. Grind the Sichuan peppercorns in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Cut the tofu into centimeter cubes. Slice the scallion into thin rounds.
Heat the oil in a wok or skillet on medium-high heat. When hot, add the minced garlic and ginger. When they are fragrant, add 1 teaspoon of the ground Sichuan peppercorns. Let it warm up a few seconds. Add the broad bean sauce. Stir. Then add the fermented black beans, soy sauce, and veg broth. Stir to make a sauce. Add the tofu cubes. Stir to coat, then let it bubble away on medium-high heat for 6-8 minutes. Keep the heat pretty high, and not a low simmer. Stir occasionally This will help the sauce reduce and soak into the tofu.
Put the cornstarch into a small bowl. Add the cold water and stir to combine. Then drizzle this cornstarch mixture over the skillet. Stir to let it thicken the sauce. Taste for salt. Pour into a serving dish and top with the remaining ground Sichuan peppercorns and scallion slices.