A couple years ago, there was a lovely Chinese restaurant in Naperville that my family used to eat at all the time . While my brother constantly berated it as “inauthentic”, I loved the spicy and mouth-numbing flavors of the Sichuan specialties on the menu, particularly the Mapo Tofu. When I moved to Connecticut a few months later to start grad school, I couldn’t find any decent Sichuan, let-alone Chinese restaurants in the area and found myself missing this dish dearly. It was from this longing, that I begin experimenting with trying to recreate this spicy braise at home, first starting with a recipe from Saveur magazine as a template and gradually modifying it over the years until I had found the perfect balance of flavors from the ingredients I was able to find. This is probably the closest I have managed to get to restaurant-level Chinese cooking at home, and I’m excited to finally be able to share the recipe with you!
- 1 ½ lbs tofu, cut into cubes
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced
- ¼ cup Sichuan chili oil (do not skip this!)
- 1 bunch, chopped scallions, white and green parts separated
- 1 tablespoon black bean paste
- 1 tablespoon gochujang
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce, plus more to taste
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns, ground
- Salt, to taste
- Chopped cilantro, optional
Cube the tofu and submerge in boiling water for about 30 mins. This helps to pre-cook and firm up the tofu so that it doesn’t crumble easily when being tossed with the sauce.
Heat a wok over medium-high heat and add the chili oil. Throw in the garlic, ginger, and the white parts of the green onions and stir-fry for about 2-3 minutes, until softened and aromatic. At this point, you can add another spoon or two of chili oil, if desired, before adding the black bean paste and gochujang. Mix around the pastes with the ginger-garlic-onion mixture until well-incorporated, about 1 minute. Then add the sugar and soy sauce, followed by the broth and tofu. Bring the mixture to boil and cook uncovered for about 5 minutes more, until the sauce has thickened nicely. Mix in the ground Sichuan peppercorns and green portions of the scallions, and cilantro, if using. Season to taste with extra soy sauce and salt if needed.
- Virtually all of the ingredients for this recipe can be found in Chinese, Vietnamese, or Korean markets. I haven’t been able to find Sichuan chili-bean paste (known as doubanjiang) anywhere, which is why I use gochujang as a substitute. It’s definitely not exactly the same flavor, as it’s missing the fermented broad beans, but it still adds a good amount of heat
- Using chili oil is a must, it helps to achieve that red color and infuse the dish with that citrusy, and characteristic, mouth-tingling Sichuan flavor. I actually make my own at home by simmering some Sichuan peppercorns, cinnamon stick, star anise, and bay leaves in vegetable oil for about 30 minutes. Then I simply strain the oil into a bowl/container filled with red-pepper flakes (I used gochugaru but crushed red-pepper works too if you want it spicier) and stir. Chili oil is complete and can be stored in the fridge for a couple months.
- Mapo Tofu usually has some sort of ground beef or pork in it, but I find that it doesn’t add much to the dish flavor wise, so I leave it out. Additionally, you can also replace the chicken broth with vegetable stock or water to make this recipe entirely vegan!
- For those of you wondering, the Naperville restaurant I was talking about was called Schezwan House, but last I heard, it has closed permanently. What a shame!