kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
[personal profile] kake
Close-up on a dish of soft tofu cubes in an oily red sauce with pieces of dried red chillies visible.

When I was planning this week's posts, I asked [personal profile] doop and [personal profile] bob if mapo tofu was too boring a dish to post about. Apparently it isn't! Tofu-hater [personal profile] bob characterises it as "making tofu actually tasty", which is something of an achievement in his opinion.

The literal translation of 麻婆豆腐 (má pó dòu fu) is "pockmarked old woman's beancurd". Various versions of the story behind the name can be found all over the interweb; here's one. 婆 (pó) is a respectful title for "grandmother" or "old woman", and as mentioned on Wednesday, 豆腐 (dòu fu) is tofu.

麻 (má) is the "pockmarked" part. It has a number of other meanings too, the most relevant to the student of the Chinese menu being "sesame" and "numb" — 麻油 (má yóu) is sesame oil, while 麻辣 (má là) describes the "spicy-numbing" flavour prevalent in Sichuan cuisine. The ma-la flavour is in fact a feature of properly-made mapo tofu, since one essential ingredient of the dish is Sichuan peppercorns (花椒/huā jiāo, literally "flower pepper"), which provide the numbing element.

Although in Western cuisine tofu is mostly seen as a meat substitute, mainly eaten by vegetarians and vegans, in Chinese cuisine it's an ingredient in its own right and is often paired with meat. 麻婆豆腐 is no exception; traditional recipes are flavoured with beef or pork mince.

Finding a good version of mapo tofu in a restaurant can be a little tricky. If you see it on the kind of menu that lists mix-and-match dishes like beef/pork/chicken/duck in black bean sauce/sweet & sour sauce/oyster sauce/with mushrooms/with ginger and spring onion (etc etc), it's likely to be a fairly bland and uninteresting concoction of tofu cubes in a gloopy, salty sauce studded with overcooked peas. If you see it on a Chinese menu as 麻婆豆腐, though, you're probably in luck! The one pictured above is a version I ate at Royal Palace in South-East London, ordered from their Chinese-only menu.

If you've only ever had the Westernised version of this dish, please don't be put off — do give the real thing a go. To make it at home, look for recipes that include plenty of Sichuan pepper, along with fermented black beans, chillies (fresh, dried, powdered, and/or as chilli oil), and the chilli bean paste (豆瓣醬/dòu bàn jiàng) mentioned in last Friday's post on fish-fragrant aubergine.

Non-meat-eaters should note that the beef/pork mince can be left out if you like — it's not the most important ingredient by any means. shiokfood.com suggests replacing the minced meat with minced fried tofu to get the right texture, while Sunflower's Food Galore suggests using chopped shiitake mushrooms and Chinese preserved vegetable instead, to enhance the flavour. (Edit, June 2011: Jing Theory's vegetarian version uses marinaded, deep-fried mushrooms. Edit, Feb 2014: Viet World Kitchen's vegetarian version uses freeze-thawed tofu.)

Some recipes for 麻婆豆腐 use cornstarch or potato starch to thicken the sauce, while others leave it out. It's up to you which you prefer. Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe uses potato starch (and beef mince), while this recipe originating from the Sichuan Culinary Institute at Chengdu leaves out the thickener and uses pork mince.

Characters mentioned in this post:
Other related posts:
If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.

Date: 2010-05-14 08:36 am (UTC)
pne: A picture of a plush toy, halfway between a duck and a platypus, with a green body and a yellow bill and feet. (Default)
From: [personal profile] pne
麻 (má) is the "pockmarked" part.

I think this may be a case for a more-common character being used to write a word pronounced identically; I would imagine that the "proper" character is 痲, with the "illness" radical (two extra little dashes at the left of the top-left semi-enclosure).

Compare http://www.unicode.org/cgi-bin/GetUnihanData.pl?codepoint=75F2&useutf8=false and http://www.unicode.org/cgi-bin/GetUnihanData.pl?codepoint=9EBB&useutf8=false .

(And also compare http://www.unicode.org/cgi-bin/GetUnihanData.pl?codepoint=75F3&useutf8=false , which looks similar but has a different pronunciation and meaning. I *think* (but am not sure) that properly, the "hemp/sesame/numb" character should also have not two trees (木, i.e. 林) at the bottom but that the diagonal strokes don't touch the crossing, like the middle portion of 術. ... though I see that 術 is also often written with 木 in the middle. Ah well. At any rate, it seems to make a difference in 痲 vs. 痳 even if it doesn't for 術 or 麻.)

Re: Variant spellings

Date: 2010-05-14 03:01 pm (UTC)
pne: A picture of a plush toy, halfway between a duck and a platypus, with a green body and a yellow bill and feet. (Default)
From: [personal profile] pne
The meanings it gives for 痲 appear to be a degree more "serious", i.e. leprosy/measles rather than just pockmarked, anaesthetised/paralysed rather than just numb.

Odd; I thought the "numb" meaning was definitely for 麻, since its meanings include "hemp" and "marijuana".

It's interesting that the CantoDict page includes "痲痺", that the Unicode page for 痲 includes an entry from a Japanese-English dictionary 痲痺 = "paralysis/palsy/numbness/stupor" and that the Unicode page for 麻 includes an entry from a Chinese-English dictionary 使麻痺 = "paralyze".

So it all seems rather confusing which, if either, character is "right" for that meaning.

(this of course doesn't mean that it has never appeared on a menu, particularly since a menu using simplified characters would use 麻 anyway).

Is that what the "痲 / 麻" on the CantoDict page implies?

Odd that the Unicode pages don't map 痲 to 麻 as a simplified form.

I'm confused.

Perhaps using 麻 for everything is easiest.

Re: Variant spellings

Date: 2010-05-14 03:08 pm (UTC)
pne: A picture of a plush toy, halfway between a duck and a platypus, with a green body and a yellow bill and feet. (Default)
From: [personal profile] pne
BTW - thank you for linking to those entries.

And apologies if I came over as trying to have the last word or be right; I'm genuinely confused since I thought I knew what was up based on the sources I had consulted, but it appears it wasn't as cut-and-dried as I had assumed.

So I was mostly thinking out loud rather than trying to prove you wrong or something.

*butts in*

Date: 2010-05-14 11:11 pm (UTC)
pulchritude: (14)
From: [personal profile] pulchritude
There's a good number of Chinese words/phrases that can be written with more than one logogram, and 麻/痳 is one of those. Both can be used to mean 'numb', though 痳 seems to be more often found in 詞. However, my dictionary (1992 version of 新华字典) is telling me that pockmocked can only be represented by 麻.

Also, my dictionary indicates that 麻 is not a simplified version of 痳.

Re: *butts in*

Date: 2010-05-16 07:35 pm (UTC)
pulchritude: (13)
From: [personal profile] pulchritude
The character simplification thing is an Official Government Project, yes, but it's also a project done in more than one stage. There was a stage of simplification done in the 80s that was completely retracted, but some people now still use those logograms...I saw a few the other day, and I was like shit if I saw this irl I'd just stare at it forever and be confused. Plus apparently a few traditional logograms are going to be 'revived' in the next few years, so yeah...:|

Re: *butts in*

Date: 2012-02-03 02:04 pm (UTC)
thatlitgirl: Cameo of a black-bound notebook with pages stuffed in and a ribbon streaming out as a placeholder. (Default)
From: [personal profile] thatlitgirl
This reminds me of learning 狡猾/狡滑 in primary school, and the frustrated teachers telling us to use the older form, since the second way of writing it might be considered non-standard. Hence, I always write it 狡猾 although the textbook used 滑。


December 2012


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