It's warm, silken and aromatic, so it's surprising to hear that this Sichuan classic means pock-marked grandmother's beancurd when translated to English. Legend has it that the dish was first made during the Qing Dynasty by a smallpox-scarred nanna (known as Mother Chen) who made the dish for labourers. While the name may be surprising, the popularity of the dish is not: it would have been just the ticket for hungry workers on the move. And today this comforting dish of smooth beancurd, fiery chilli, numbing Sichuan peppercorns and minced beef is one of the most-widely recognised Sichuan dishes in China and around the world.
Being a poor man's dish, original versions of ma po doufu were made with off-cuts of beef, hence the mincing of the meat, but today you'll also find some recipes with pork.
The ratio of meat to beancurd varies from recipe to recipe; however, Tony Tan, GT's contributor and authority on Asian food, recommends around five parts beancurd to one part meat. But while beancurd is a key ingredient, it plays a neutral role - acting as a carrier for the other components and flavours of the dish.
"It shouldn't have a strong tofu taste," says Ye Shao, owner of standard-setting Melbourne restaurant Dainty Sichuan, "but a taste more of chilli and Sichuan pepper, blended or mixed with the broad bean paste and minced meat. To achieve this, it's important to stir-fry the broad bean paste with the minced meat to bring out the flavour and fragrance before adding stock."
Use the freshest spices you can find for best results, and enough chilli so that the heat lingers on the palate, but not so much that you can no longer taste the other flavours.
A good ma po doufu should have a harmonious balance of saltiness, sweetness and heat: get this balance right and we guarantee this staple of Sichuan cuisine will soon be one of yours too.
Fiery, numbing, salty and sweet, this Sichuan dish of humble origin is today a worldwide hit, writes Maya Kerthyasa.