Weeknight Mapo tofu is a one pan wonder! Tofu with ground pork and green onions in a black bean and garlic sauce with Sichuan pepper has authentic flavor, but simplified just enough so you can make it any night of the week without compromising that unique character.
Mapo Tofu is a flexitarian’s dream meal
I think the thing I love most about mapo tofu, besides the incredible richly flavored sauce, is the fact that it combines meat and tofu. It’s a flexitarian’s dream meal, with lots of healthy plant protein accented with meat for flavor and texture. The combination of the soft tender tofu, the spicy sauce, and the caramelized granules of ground pork is really special, but while this meal tastes complex, it’s totally doable on a weeknight.
What is mapo tofu?
- Mapo tofu is a Sichuan Chinese dish made with tofu and minced beef or pork in a spicy black bean and chili sauce.
- The name literally translates to “pockmarked old woman tofu” ~ not sure anybody knows why 😉
ingredients to make Sichuan mapo tofu
If you’re here you probably appreciate Chinese food, so you may already have most of these ingredients at home. If not, don’t hesitate to stock up, the spices and sauces keep well and will be used often in many different types of Asian recipes.
- extra firm tofu ~ you want extra firm tofu so that it will hold its shape and not fall apart in the sauce. Don’t worry, extra firm tofu still has a silky mouthfeel and a lovely soft consistency in this dish.
- ground pork ~ you can also use ground beef in this dish. Break it down as it cooks with the edge of a spatula to create the characteristic granular texture (see the photo below)
- scallions ~ the only other main ingredient, green onions should be used in abundance in this dish, both in and on top as a garnish.
- oil ~ peanut or vegetable oil
- black bean garlic sauce ~ you’ll find this in the Asian section of your supermarket. The authentic ingredient is called Doubanjiang, which is a spicy fermented bean paste, and you can find that online, or in an Asian market. I used regular black bean garlic sauce and it was fine.
- Sichuan peppercorns ~ these are a must, and might be hard to find at your grocery store. Find them in Asian markets or order from an online spice store. They keep well, and you’ll be glad you have them the next time you need them for a Chinese recipe.
- chili oil ~ this comes in the form of a brilliant (and spicy) red paste, and it’s commonly available in supermarkets.
- 5 spice powder ~ you should have this Chinese spice blend in your pantry, it’s a wonderful mix of cinnamon, anise, ginger, fennel and clove.
- soy sauce ~ I love Tamari
- rice wine or mirin ~ I use it to deglaze the pan.
- sugar ~ counters the spiciness of the dish.
- cornstarch ~ gives the thin sauce just a little bit of body.
no special equipment needed
You don’t need a wok for this meal, in fact I prefer a large flat braising pan or Dutch oven with a lid. I like to use a rubber or silicone spatula for shuffling the tofu around gently so it doesn’t fall to pieces. It works well for breaking up the pork as it cooks, too.
The star of this show has to be the Sichuan pepper
- Sichuan pepper is the dried berry of a Chinese shrub, and not actually a pepper at all.
- I know you immediately think ‘hot and spicy’ when you think of Sichuan pepper, but it’s actually not hot at all. The pepper is famous for leaving a tingly numbing feeling on the tongue (called paresthesia) that is not unpleasant or traditionally what we think of as spicy.
- The subtle numbing effect of Sichuan pepper is believed to dull our sensation of heat from hot ingredients in a dish and allow us to appreciate the flavors better. Cool, huh?
- You can store Sichuan pepper in its whole form, and crack or crush it as needed.
- Sichuan peppercorns come to us already partially cracked, but I generally roll over the peppercorns with my rolling pin to lightly crush them before using. You can also totally use them as is, if you like.
- Like all dried peppercorns, Sichuan pepper will keep well in an airtight jar in a cupboard.
cook’s tips for making mapo tofu
- Toasting the bean sauce and spices in the pan right at the start is a great technique, so don’t skip it. You’ll get some good caramelization on the pan, and the meat will absorb all the flavors as it cooks.
- The dish is very simple, and I think the green onions really add a nice vegetable element, plus they cook up so sweet. I used a whole bunch, but I think I might double that next time.
- Before adding the tofu, take the opportunity to taste the sauce. This is your change to change any of the seasonings before the delicate tofu goes into the pan and stirring becomes difficult. Don’t be shy, tofu kind of sucks up flavors and even blunts them at bit.
- When you add the tofu cubes to the pan, arrange them evenly across the surface, then cover and let them steam for 10 minutes. This helps them to firm up.
- Once the tofu goes in I stop stirring, instead I shake, shuffle, and shimmy the pan to nestle them down into the sauce. Aggressive stirring will break the tofu.
- Mapo tofu is quite good all on its own, but serving with rice will stretch the meal further and blunt some of the spice for sensitive diners.
- Mapo tofu keeps well, and makes great leftovers for several days.
More Asian inspired weeknight meals
Weeknight Mapo Tofu
- Large skillet or wok
- 28 ounces (two 14 ounce packages) extra firm tofu
- 2 tsp cornstarch
- 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp water
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 3-4 Tbsp of black bean sauce (more to taste)
- 1 Tbsp Tamari soy sauce
- 2 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 tsp 5 spice powder
- 2 tsp chili oil
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 lb ground pork
- 1 bunch scallions, about 10. Add more if you like.
- 2 Tbsp rice wine or mirin
- Drain and slice the tofu into 1/2 inch cubes and set aside. Mix the cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of water until smooth, then add one cup water and stir well, set aside.
- Heat the oil in a wok, large skillet, or Dutch oven. Add the black bean sauce, soy sauce, Sichuan pepper, 5 spice powder, chili oil, and sugar. Saute, stirring constantly, for a couple of minutes.
- Add the ground pork to the pan and saute until thoroughly cooked, breaking up the meat with your spatula as it cooks.
- You want the meat to be broken down as much as possible, so keep at it the whole time. It should look finely textured, like the photo.
- Add the scallions and cook briefly to soften them.
- Deglaze the pan with the rice wine and let bubble for a minute. Give the cornstarch water a good stir and add to the pan. Bring the pot up to a summer, stirring almost constantly. Note: take this opportunity, before the tofu goes in, to taste the sauce. Adjust it with extra spices if you like. If you find it too spicy, add a little more sugar.
- Carefully add the tofu to the pan, covering the whole surface evenly. Don't stir in. Bring back to a simmer, then cover and let simmer for 10 minutes, on a low heat. Note: make sure the pot is at a low simmer, and adjust heat accordingly. You don't want it to boil furiously.
- Remove the cover, and shake the pan, shimmying it so that the tofu settles into the sauce. I do this so I don't risk breaking up the tofu by stirring. Let cook gently, uncovered, for 5-10 minutes more until the tofu is nice and hot.
- Garnish with more sliced scallions and serve as is, over with rice.
- If you like you can add fresh grated garlic and ginger to the pan in step 1.