Mapo Dofu

Only recently legally available in the United States after an almost 40-year banishment (something to do with a citrus canker they could potentially carry and spread), Szechuan, or Sichuan, peppercorns are floral, vibrantly aromatic, and capable of inflicting a distinctly unpleasant numbing effect on the tongue when used in excess. I'm not talking painful numb like chiles. Just numb, like Novocaine. Weird, right?

But these zesty little fruits, so exotic to our American palates, have
long been used in traditional Chinese cooking. And perhaps I was a bit starry-eyed at the whole mystique they have about them, being (formerly) forbidden and all, but when I saw them for sale at the Penzeys in Grand Central Station, I of course bought a jar.

Regular readers of this blog know my feelings about
tofu, and mapo dofu may be my very favorite way to eat it. Our go-to Chinese take-out place does a respectable version—using Szechuan peppercorns, in fact—but awhile ago I came up with my own recipe, which I hoped to be just as flavorful, but less greasy. Brian and I loved it. Much bowl-licking ensued.

My first attempt to integrate Szechuan peppercorns into the dish was a little, er, bumpy, culminating in anguished cries of "Aahhh! My tongue is numb! Aahhh!" (That was me—Brian, to his credit, was much more restrained in his criticism: "Um, maybe you should use fewer Szechuan peppercorns next time.")

So remember: practice restraint with this distinctive spice. And then you'll come to appreciate its bright peppery zing without feeling like you've just gotten a cavity filled.


1/2 pound ground pork
1 1-pound tub "regular" tofu
2 tablespoons dried fermented Chinese black beans, rinsed and chopped
6 dried hot chiles, 1 crumbled and 5 left intact
4 scallions, 2 finely minced and 2 sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 cube Chinese fermented tofu (funyu) with chile
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with a little water
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4-1/2 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns, lightly toasted in a dry skillet and crushed

Combine stock, sugar, salt, soy sauce, and funyu in a bowl; stir to mix. Heat pan until smoking hot (I use a large cast-iron skillet for all my stir-frying). Swirl a tablespoon of oil around pan, spread out pork, let sit a minute, then stir-fry, breaking it up, a minute or two longer. Add chiles and beans, fry another minute. Add 2 minced scallions, ginger, and garlic; fry 30 seconds to a minute. Add stock mixture and tofu; simmer gently about five minutes. Add cornstarch mixture, stirring until sauce is thickened. Sprinkle crushed Szechuan peppercorns over tofu and stir to combine. Garnish with cilantro and sliced scallions.  

For more Weekend Herb Blogging, be sure to visit Kalyn's Kitchen and this week's roundup at Cook (almost)Anything . . . At Least Once!

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  • 10/3/2007 7:56 AM Kalyn wrote:
    I must try them, and I'm just about to order something from Penzeys, so thanks!
  • 10/3/2007 11:08 AM Yvo wrote:
    Those crazy Chinese- curious about how long ago they lifted the ban? Because... I feel like I've seen these (maybe they were lookalikes) in dishes before... like when I was a kid! Oh well. Funny, peopel are always amazed when I say I've never had mapo dofu.... maybe I'll try making your recipe sometime hopefully soon Looks delicious!! How spicy is it, btw?
  • 10/3/2007 8:05 PM Bon Vivant wrote:
    My favorite way to eat mabo tofu is as mabo ramen!
  • 10/4/2007 2:09 PM Michelle wrote:
    Mmm. Will have to try this recipe...I make a very simple caveman version that I've been meaning to update.
    1. 10/4/2007 7:02 PM Sarah Kiino wrote:

      Hi Kalyn--Cool! Glad you're going to give them a try!

      Hi Yvo--I think the operative word here is "legally." Apparently the ban wasn't enforced too vigorously, so perhaps in Chinatown they would have been available if you knew the secret password or whatever. My version is actually not that spicy at all, because I leave all the dried chiles except for one intact. That way you get flavor and a bit of warmth, but not searing heat.

      Hey Bon Vivant--That's something I've never tried, but I love mapo dofu and I love ramen, so why not?

      Hey Michelle--I would love to see your "caveman" version on your blog one day!


  • 10/12/2007 12:14 PM Rex wrote:
    Hey I really like your blog, I am out today trying to expand the
    Food community that is growing on Criteo. Would you like
    to try Criteo AutoRoll? I think it will be beneficial to showing you
    other Food blogs where you can develop relationships.
  • 10/12/2007 5:02 PM vanessa wrote:
    very cool! I loves me a new spice!
    I may very well try this... without the pork or with seitan instead. looks fab.
    1. 10/18/2007 8:37 PM Sarah Kiino wrote:
      Hey Rex, thanks for stopping by.
      Hey Vanessa--pork purely optional. This dish is really about the tofu.
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