Mapo tofu is one of the marquee dishes of Sichuan cuisine - a style of Chinese food that is world-renowned for its spice. There are many recipes for this peppery fare available online, but the only way to get a truly authentic order of Mapo tofu is to come to Sichuan, China!
Mapo tofu has a long history in southwest China but its origins have obscured over time. One of the most popular local versions of the dish's beginning is as follows:
Long ago in Sichuan, a gorgeous girl named Xishi sold tofu at the fair. Xishi was popular with everyone. Even though her tofu was not particularly tasty, people would come from all over and buy her tofu just so they could appreciate her beauty - to such a degree that as time passed by, 'tofu Xishi' became a household phrase referring to beauty.
Meanwhile, a very unattractive lady called Mapo, a reference to her unsightly face - coming from the Chinese words "ma" meaning 'pockmarked' and "po" meaning 'old lady,' also sold her tofu at the fair and hers was widely regarded as the most delicious-tasting tofu in all of Sichuan.
Despite Mapo's exceptional ability to make irresistable tofu, her looks kept anyone from befriending her. One day, however, a prince was given some of her delicious tofu for the first time and decided that he would marry whoever could make such amazing food. After tracking Mapo down, he was confronted with her homely appearance but decided to marry her anyway because of how good her tofu was, and they lived happily ever after. Since then, this unique tofu dish has carried her name and her method has been spread all across Sichuan.
Authentic Mapo tofu is made with unique ingredients and seasonings only native to Sichuan, such as Chinese pepper. The dish is made by slicing tofu into squares and braising them in soy sauce and local ingredients and spices. After all the other seasonings and ingredients have been added, the most vital seasonings - crushed red pepper and Chinese pepper are added, and finally the Mapo tofu can be served.
Each piece of white tofu looks like the face of a lady, while the pepper sauce is said to resemble the freckles and pockmarks on Mapo's face. Though the tofu itself is so soft and tender that it seems to melt when you put it into your mouth, the Chinese pepper and crushed red pepper will give your tongue a zesty burning-and-numbing sensation that is typical of Sichuan dishes. The combination of spicy, numb, soft and yummy come together to form the authentic Mapo Tofu flavor.