Mapo doufu

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Mapo doufu (Mapo tofu) (Chinese: 麻婆豆腐; pinyin: [Mápó dòufu] error: {{lang}}: missing language tag (help)) is a popular Chinese dish from the Szechuan (Sichuan) province. It is a combination of tofu (bean curd) and minced meat, usually beef, in a spicy bean-based sauce, sometimes with other ingredients such as water chestnuts, onions or wood ear fungus. The name means "Pocked-Face Lady's Tofu," and is said to come from a (possibly fictional) food vendor by the name of Ma, who made and sold the dish. Another possible explanation stems from an alternate definition of 麻, meaning "numb": the Szechuan peppercorns used in the dish can slightly numb the diner's mouth.

True Mapo doufu is powerfully spicy with both conventional "heat" spiciness and the characteristic "mala" (numbing spiciness) flavor of Sichuan (Szechuan) cuisine. The authentic form of the dish is increasingly easier to find outside China today, but usually in Szechuanese restaurants that do not adapt the dish for non-Sichuanese (non-Szechuanese) tastes.

Often the dish is adulterated, with its spiciness severely toned down to widen its appeal. This happens even in Chinese restaurants, commonly those not specialising in Sichuan (Szechuan) cuisine. In American Chinese cuisine the dish is often made without meat to appeal to vegetarians, and with very little spice.

Story of Mapo tofu

Legend of the Pock-Marked Old Lady

Ma stands for "mazi" (Chinese 麻子,) which means pockmarks left on face from smallpox. Po (Chinese 婆) is the old woman. Hence, Mapo is an old woman whose face was pockmarked. Legend says that the pock-marked old woman (má pó) was a leprous widow who lived in the Chinese city of Chengdu. Due to her condition, her home was placed on the outskirts of the city. By coincidence, it was near a road where goods carriers often passed. Although the rich merchants could afford to stay within the numerous inns of the prosperous city while waiting for their goods to sell, poor farmers would stay in cheaper inns scattered along the sides of roads on the outskirts of the ancient city.

It is said that the first people who tasted the old woman's cooking were a farmer and his son who arrived late to the city during a terrible rainstorm. They were forced to find shelter in the old woman's home having found that all of the inns were full.

Eager for the company, the old woman from her paltry larder prepared them a meal, including the dish now know as Mapo Doufu. The dish was so delicious that soon each time the father and son passed the old woman's home they would stay for a meal. In this way, the old woman's renown spread as other goods carriers joined the father and son in visiting and staying at her home. These visitors would often bring the ingredients for her dish so as not to burden her larder.

As time passed, the dish evolved. However, the core ingredients have always been: an ounce of ground beef, a few ounces of tofu, and an ample amount of ground Sichuan pepper.

Historical Basis

Whether or not the Pock-Marked Old Lady actually existed is open to debate. Much of evidence for her story is derived from the similarities of pronunciation and form in the character "leprous" and the character for "numb". In many circumstances, the two characters are used interchangeably. Outside of similarities in etymology, the story is based purely on hear-say evidence.

Ma could hardly mean leprosy or numb in this case. Because Leprosy was a very scary disease that nobody would like to live close or physically contact such patients. And in the old days in China, leprous people were considered evil and expelled from their homes.

Some also cite the simplicity of the dish as supporting evidence for the story.

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See also