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Authentic Sichuan Mapo Doufu tastes like...?

  • y
  • Yclops Aug 3, 2005 04:59 PM

What?

I'm a bit confused. I loooove mapo doufu...ate it every chance I had during my years in Taiwan.

Now, back in LA, I've had mapo doufu at several Sichuan restaurants, but it doesn't always taste like the stuff in Taiwan:

The Taiwanese mapo dofu seemed to be flavored primarily by the chili bean sauce (doubanjiang), with good chili heat and a thickish sauce (with some Sichuan pepper "mala" tingle). I've had two versions in LA that were overpoweringly full of Sichuan pepper; that's all I could taste. Plenty hot, but no chili bean sauce taste. They tasted almost like a Cantonese version (yuck) with a truckload of Sichuan pepper in it. Moreover, the sauce was very thin.

(For Los Angelenos...Hu's Szechuan in West LA had a version that was very much like the Taiwanese stuff, but Oriental Pearl--Valley Blvd. branch and Szechuan Express in San Gabriel/Monterey Park had the pepper-heavy versions.)

Further complicating matters is Fuschia Dunlop's Sichuan cookbook, "Land of Plenty". I've made her recipe for mapo doufu twice (followed instructions to the letter), using Pixian doubanjiang as she recommends (chuan pi pai brand "Pixian County Chili Sauce"), and the recommended amount of Sichuan pepper (1/4 tsp per pound of tofu). Wouldn't you know it, but this came out different from both the Taiwanese and the LA-Sichuan types, but closer to the Taiwanese in flavor (it was delicious BTW). (I've also tried Ken Hom's and the Weichuan book recipes, but those were so bad I've blanked them from memory.)

Now, my question is: which one is "authentic" Sichuan mapo doufu? Should it have just a blast of Sichuan pepper and straight heat or should it be chili bean sauce-heavy?

Not sure whether this should be posted on the LA, Home Cooking, General or Int'l boards since it's a mix of all of 'em...so I put it on the General Board...apologies if wrong.

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  1. w
    Wayne Keyser

    You think there's some kind of "authentic Chinese recipe police" patrolling the streets of Sichuan province?

    A Chinese visitor to the States might as well ask "what does an authentic hamburger taste like?"

    Everybody has a variation of their own.

    Your own good sense should probably prevail: a balance.

    1. Mmmm.... one of Taiwan's signature dishes, who needs the original. So many good Shichuan dishes that have made their way in to the Taiwan food landscape.

      Taiwan cooking, in all it's interpretations of Mainland cuisine, should get much more attention than it does. And after that there is Hakka!!!

      1. Confusing things further is the Japanese fondness for the dish which is, well, different than the Chinese versions. Dunlop's take is probably closest to the recipe's roots;indeed her versions of many Sichuan classics are among the best currently available. Are they canonical, though? Probably not, since a good Taiwanese variant is just as delicious, though different.

        1. I ate at the original shop in Chengdu before they tore it down in the '80s. It was a sort of patched together thing made of various bits of wood, including tree branches, and partly roofed and walled with woven bamboo mats, and a dirt floor. They served mapo doufu, white oil doufu, which is about the same thing without the spice, and rice. Also a Chinese colleague taught me to make it. It was served in a bowl with a bit of chopped meat and a bit of oily liquid. The main seasoning is douban, and the authentic stuff, according to my colleague, should indeed come from Pixian, which is about 15 km from Chengdu. I found it at an oriental store about a year ago, with the name, "Pixian Thick Broad-bean." I think it has more chili than bean, so yours being called chili sauce makes sense. A little salt, a little sugar, soy sauce I think, sesame oil, chopped green onions and crushed sichuan pepper corns sprinkled on top.

          I have no objection to minor variations, like your Taiwanese versions seem to be, but the Cantonese version I had with carrots, peas, and sweet and sour sauce with a little chili, while not bad in itself, shouldn't be called mapo doufu.

          1. It doesn't really matter what is authentic. All that matters is you like it. After all, authentic foods can still be pretty bad.

            4 Replies
            1. re: raytamsgv

              Agreed. There must be countless variations for which you can find a corresponding expert to pronounce it to be the most authentic.
              I make it with crushed Sichuan peppercorns, hot chili oil, tons of garlic/ginger, hot black sauce, and yes, peas.

              1. re: Leonardo

                One of the best examples of Sichuan Ma-Po Tofu I have tried was made from a recpe given to me by a Singaporean friend, who got it from her mother. It contained peas, a small amount of Shaoshing wine, ketchup, and sambal oelek.

                1. re: Leonardo

                  The mapo tofu versions they call Sichuanese in NYC tend to be a bit more oily and have lots of Sichuan peppercorn so you have that mouth tingle, and a duskier type chili taste, and have cut leeks or larger scallions. They have a distinctly different taste than the regular standard Chinese restaurant version which are nice sometimes too but rely more on chili bean sauce.

                  1. re: jeanki

                    A chinese co-worker saw my attempt (w/ bean paste) and gave me a small red package, telling me it was mala dofu. She told me "just warm it up".

                    It was basically a dark red oil with tons of crushed Sichuan pepper floating in it.

                    I put it over small bits of diced tofu and green onion and tossed it on some noodles. It was delicious!

                    Is that what approaches 'NYC Sichuanese'? Anyone have a link for a recipe like that?

              2. I would kill for "authentic" mapo dofu. Unfortunately when I make it, I bastardize the whole thing and add korean gochujang and daengjang (cause that's what I have in the house) and I don't even add szechuan peppercorns cause I don't even know if I can find them anywhere.

                so does the authentic version have soft tofu or firm tofu?

                3 Replies
                1. re: bitsubeats

                  It's been a lot of years, but as I remember the doufu in Sichuan is pretty firm.

                  Another proletarian soy bean based dish that I once bought from a guy that rode his bike around announcing "dou hua," literally bean flower. It's a doufu that isn't quite solidified, that he serves from a big container into your bowl, and garnishes with chili oil and chopped scallions.

                  As I remember, the last time I bought Sichuan pepper corn it was in a cellophane bag, about a pound, it's little reddish brown balls, and it was labeled "Chinese prickly ash." The Chinese name, if you want to try to ask for it, is "hua jiao." To use it, I toasted some in the wok, then crushed it.

                  In my experience the bean sauce is a bit harder to find. If so, you might try a black bean sauce, and add chili to taste.

                  1. re: vanhelmont

                    Dou hua aka dou nao (bean brains) has to be one of the most delicious things to eat on earth, especially when procured in the way you describe. Thanks for reminding me of the sweet bike-riding man who sold it to me in (of all places) Wuxi.

                  2. re: bitsubeats

                    I think they sell Sichuan peppercorns online now at Penzey's Spices website. They were illegal for a time in the US recently but now they are irradiated to get rid of 'citrus canker' which infects orange trees.

                    For the regular standard Chinese restaurant style ma po dofu, I find a reasonable approximation in the chili bean sauce they sell at Asian markets (I think the brand was Lee Kum Kee but I'm not sure.) I think they even have a mapo sauce. For the authentic stuff though, don't know.

                  3. You can find saucy and oily/peppery versions here in Sichuan too. From the same restaurant even, at different times of day. I like it with the bean sauce and tofu that is slightly firm, but the other kind is OK too. Bitsubeats, it is sometimes served with the soft tofu. Kochujang/denjang sounds like a great way to approximate the flavour of Pixian dou ban, by the way.