This glorious dish, sometimes known in English as pock-marked old woman’s tofu, is named after the smallpox-scarred wife of a restaurateur. In the late nineteenth century, “old mother Chen” (chen mapo) is said to have cooked this up near the Bridge of Ten Thousand Blessings in the north of Chengdu for passing laborers, who would lay down their loads of cooking oil to eat lunch before continuing on their way to the city’s markets.
Heartwarming, homely and utterly delicious, it’s one of the most famous Sichuanese dishes, and epitomizes the spicy generosity of the folk cooking of the region. The Sichuan pepper will make your lips tingle pleasantly, and the tender tofu will slip smoothly down your throat.
Mapo tofu makes the perfect riposte to those who consider tofu boring, and tends to seduce meat-eaters and—if you omit the meat and use a vegetable stock—vegetarians alike. I probably cook it more frequently than any other Sichuanese dish.
Traditionally, the tofu is cooked with ground beef, but many restaurants, even in Chengdu, use pork instead. I often make a vegetarian version: the rich, savory chile bean paste and fermented beans mean the meat is rarely missed. In Sydney, I once made it with ground wallaby: stunningly good!
If you can find it, use Chinese green garlic instead of the scallions; alternatively, use sliced baby leeks or the green shoots that emerge from forgotten garlic bulbs in your kitchen.
This dish is most delicious when made with mature Pixian chile bean paste, with its deep chestnut color and ripe savory flavor. Adjust the final sprinkling of Sichuan pepper according to your guests’ tastes (Sichuanese people can take about four times as much pepper as outsiders, in my experience).