Chopstick Challenge: Mapo tofu
Legend has it that Qing Dynasty restaurateur Mother Chen, with her pockmarked complexion and entrepreneurial cunning, fed legions of Sichuan oil bearers a dish concocted with their own cargo. The invention became known as mapo tofu, literally ‘pockmarked granny’s bean curd.’
Mapo tofu is a scorching wintertime dish made of soft tofu, chili bean paste and ground meat. Once a Chengdu specialty, it has become a beloved staple among Shanghai diners.
There can be no 'best' mapo tofu, as every decent cook has his own take on it. This is an easy recipe, but small variations can prove a revelation or a disaster.
In the interest of scientific inquiry -- and because we love this dish -- we picked three exemplary variations at three popular chains around town.
344 Huaihai Zhong Lu 淮海中路344号, +86 21 6384 2883
The place: Given the spaced-out staff and rivers of grease, Tony might not be the pinnacle of dining charm, but a few of the restaurant's Sichuan standards are outstanding, such as their mapo tofu. This might be an endangered recipe: Tony’s outlets have a habit of disappearing.
Price: RMB 16
Features: Unexpected smokiness and good density.
The dish: The tofu cubes are literally drowning in chili oil and have an intense smoky finish. The beef is minced almost into a powder, not coarsely ground as in more traditional dishes. We noticed a bit more potato flour and soy in the oil base, making the sauce rich and more substantial. Oh, and it’s hot.
Adam, retired American: “Luscious. Stained my dentures.”
Fan, Shanghai professor: “Good flavor, but I could do with less oil.”
Kat, Russian designer: “It’s great. We need more rice.”
Verdict: Savory stew from fiery hell -- delicious.
515 Anlong Lu 安龙路515号, +86 21 6242 1177
The place: This is a rough, authentic joint with narrow teetering balconies, a blast of renao [noise and excitement], and years after bringing Chengdu cooking to Shanghai, the proprietors still refuse to tone it down, attracting a steady stream of native Sichuanese diners.
Price: RMB 18
Features: Minced pork rather than beef and numbing, spicy flavors.
The dish: Three Sisters serve up the red devil of mapo tofus -- with more zing, served in a deep bowl, with a dish that shines so bright you don't need lights. The tofu cubes are firmer than usual and topped with generous amounts of ground pork. This is the least oily but the hottest of the three -- so mouth-numbing, you’ll stay quiet through the weekend.
Lena, Russian actress: “Nothing like this in my country.”
Olya, stage manager from Finland: “I wish I cooked this!”
Wang Hua, Shanghai photographer: “Quite authentic. Tofu is good for your eyes."
Verdict: A fiery antidote for winter’s ennui
592 Nanjing Dong Lu 南京东路592号, +86 21 6428 2777
The place: We know what to expect at Hou Wei, so we’re willing to wait. This is 'mala' heaven: the kitchen is consistent, the dining room is supremely efficient and the prices are low. For our money, it’s a better chain than Spicy Joint -- sacrilege, we know, but it’s true.
Price: RMB 9
Features: Fragrant, numbing and perfectly balanced.
The dish: A coating of brown peppercorn powder floats over deep red oil, separating beautifully on the perimeter of the bowl. The bean curd is sumptuously tender. This mapo todu is tangy, nutty and has a complex chili flavor. Confirming the Chinese truism, it truly ‘helps down the rice’ at the end of the meal.
Jackson, caterer from Louisiana: “Addictive.”
Amy, Shanghai agent: “What a deal.”
Bob, American artist: “Extremely delicious. This is a trip.”