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.)

Date: 2010-05-14 11:12 pm (UTC)
pulchritude: clouds forming china (15)
From: [personal profile] pulchritude
I have yet to have 麻婆豆腐 (or, in fact, any food from a place that calls itself Sichuanese) that has the 麻辣 flavour. I was really pleased to see you mention it! :D

Date: 2010-05-20 10:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] billyabbott.livejournal.com
Ta muchly for this - I may not have had to read it off the menu in anything but english, but I remembered the name while ordering dinner tonight and it's the best thing I've had off the menu yet. Much tasty.

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