The first tofu dish that I really fell in love with was ma po dou fu (aka mapo tofu) a Chinese specialty made with ground meat, tofu, salty/hot/rich sauce and numbing Sichuan peppercorn. If you have Asian Tofu, the recipe headnote tells the story how as a teen permitted to tag along on an adult lunch, I quietly ate most of what was served while the adults socialized. I wasn’t anti-social. I’d discovered a ridiculously delicious dish.
Over the years, I’ve tried out countless mapo tofu recipes and finally went to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where the dish originated. It was a central part of my tofu field work because I was looking to explore tofu hot spots and iconic dishes. While I learned a lot about various renditions of mapo tofu – from home cooks and restaurants including Chen’s (a chain built on the original version), I gained insight into what makes truly excellent versions: Dou ban jiang, a seasoning sauce made with fermented broad beans (fava beans) and chile.
The brick-red sauce may seem mysterious but once you try it out in mapo tofu, it lends a wonderfully savory, fundamental funk like no other. If you’ve made mapo with other chile sauces or bean sauces, they’ll pale by comparison to the results made with dou ban jiang.