When I was planning this week's posts, I asked doop and bob if mapo tofu was too boring a dish to post about. Apparently it isn't! Tofu-hater 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.)
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.