Mapo tofu: a signature Sichuan dish with eight layers of flavor

Society & Culture

Tingly-numb (麻 má), spicy (辣 là), hot (烫 tàng), fragrant (香 xiāng), crispy (酥 sū), tender (嫩 nèn), fresh (鲜 xiān), lively (活 huó).

Mapo tofu
Photos by Lu Zhao

Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐 mápó dòufǔ) is a classic Sichuan dish featuring soft tofu, minced meat (usually beef or pork), and, most importantly, chili bean paste. It has a spicy, salty flavor that goes perfectly with rice. Best of all, it’s quite easy to make at home. To make it vegan, simply replace the meat with mushrooms, though going with just tofu is also satisfying.

The dish was created over a century ago during the Qing Dynasty. Its inventor, Mapo — meaning “pockmarked elderly lady” — ran a small restaurant in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. Her creation features eight characteristics: tingly-numb (麻 má), spicy (辣 là), hot (烫 tàng), fragrant (香 xiāng), crispy (酥 sū), tender (嫩 nèn), fresh (鲜 xiān), lively (活 huó); taken together, these characteristics are representative of Sichuan cuisine.


Serves 2-3


20 minutes


  • 400g soft tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 100g ground beef
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese cooking wine
  • 1+1/2 tablespoons chili bean paste
  • 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon ginger, minced
  • 1 green onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 dried chili, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch, mixed with 3 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 teaspoon vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

mapo tofu 2


1. Heat up 2 tablespoons of cooking oil over high heat in a non-stick pan. Add the minced beef and 1 teaspoon of Chinese cooking wine. Stir fry until the meat becomes crispy.   Take the beef out and set aside.

2. Add 1+1/2 tablespoons of chili bean paste to the same pan and fry over medium heat for about 40 seconds to let the aroma out.

3. Stir in ginger, garlic, dried chili, 1 teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorn, 1 teaspoon of chili powder. Fry until fragrant.

4. Pour in 2 cups of water, then simmer over low heat for 7 minutes.

5. Gently slide in tofu cubes. Add 1 teaspoon of light soy sauce  and the cooked beef. Bring the pan to a boil and then simmer for 8 minutes over low heat.

6. Mix 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 3 tablespoons of water. Stir well. Swirl in and bring the sauce to a boil.

7. Remove the pan from the heat after the sauce has thickened. Add 1/4 teaspoon of vinegar and 1 teaspoon of sugar to taste.

8. Sprinkle with green onion. Serve with rice.

mapo tofu 4

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