Chinese mapo tofu, usually served over a warm bowl of rice, is one of the BEST ways to enjoy tofu! It's a saucy dish made up of cubed soft tofu, minced meat, aromatics, and a spicy, savory, and slightly numbing sauce (from Sichuan peppercorns). My version of mapo tofu is a combination of the the slightly sweeter, Cantonese version that I grew up eating and the spicier Sichuan version that I love.
The foundation of mapo tofu’s flavor lies in its spicy bean paste (doubanjiang). The brand or kind you use can dramatically impact the final taste, so I tested some popular options below!
What ingredients do I need to make Chinese mapo tofu?
Here are the main ingredients I like to use in my mapo tofu, with substitutions:
Make sure it's not silken tofu -- silken tofu is much more delicate, and is usually used for desserts.
You can also use firm tofu for mapo tofu, although I've found that firm tofu doesn't absorb the flavors of the sauce as well compared to soft tofu. However, firm tofu breaks less easily, so it can be a great option for beginners making this dish!
Any minced meat will work here, but my favorite for its flavor (and most traditional for mapo tofu) is ground pork.
You can substitute ground beef, chicken, or even turkey. Just note that ground chicken and turkey will be more lean, so it's more likely to be dry!
If you don't want a vegetarian version, you can also use minced shiitake mushrooms. I've also done a version with crumbled extra firm tofu as the "minced meat"! I press the extra firm tofu block between paper towels to remove as much moisture as possible first, then crumble it into little pieces and stir fry until dry.
spicy bean paste (doubanjiang)
A good spicy bean paste is probably THE most important ingredient for a delicious mapo tofu. Make sure you get a good quality one, or one that you like. If you can, try several different kinds!
My personal favorite is this exact Sichuan Pixian spicy broad bean paste.
sweet bean paste (optional, but my personal favorite addition!)
While traditional Sichuan mapo tofu doesn't have sweet bean paste, the Cantonese mapo tofu that I grew up eating leans a bit sweeter. To create a fusion of both types of mapo tofu, I like to add sweet bean paste to mine to balance out the spiciness from the spicy bean paste!
If you can't find sweet bean paste, you can use hoisin.
aromatics & seasoning
Sichuan red peppercorns are what gives mapo tofu its signature numbing sensation!
As with most Chinese dishes, aromatics like ginger, garlic, and shallots give this mapo tofu so much aroma and flavor.
Shaoxing wine deglazes the pan while adding a subtle, almost floral aroma.
Sesame oil at the end provides as hint of nuttiness that's an essential layer of flavor.
other optional ingredients
Fermented black beans can add a different saltiness and depth to this dish! I wouldn't go out of my way to include these, but if you have them on hand, they can be a tasty addition!
I like using dried red chilis for that extra red color and pop in the dish.
If you're a spice lover, an extra drizzle of spicy chili oil or spicy chili crisp is a must!
What kind of spicy bean paste should I use for Chinese mapo tofu?
Because of how important doubanjiang is for great-tasting mapo tofu, I tested two brands of spicy bean paste:
- Sichuan Pixian spicy broad bean paste (from recommendation by Omnivore’s Cookbook), and
- Lee Kum Kee’s chili bean sauce
Even on just texture and appearance alone, these two look very different. The Sichuan Pixian version (left) is a thick, rustic paste with a dark red color filled with large pieces of broad bean and chili peppers. Lee Kum Kee’s (right) is a bright red and has more moisture — I’d call it more of a chili sauce than a paste.
As far as taste goes, the mapo tofu I made with the the Pixian spicy broad bean paste had more depth, complexity, and texture (with the broad beans). Lee Kum Kee’s, which is still a decent option and very accessible, is just lightly spicy, has less depth, but works well in a pinch. If you’re able to get it, I highly recommend the Sichuan Pixian spicy broad bean paste.
I actually grew up eating the Cantonese version of mapo tofu, which isn’t known for its spice or numbing factor. Cantonese mapo tofu usually has some sweetness. To create a version that gets the best of both worlds (sweet & spicy), I like to cook mine with an additional sweet bean paste (pictured above in the ingredients list, and can be found at Asian supermarkets), which nicely balances the spiciness of the dish. I personally prefer this because it’s closer to the version of mapo tofu I grew up eating, but feel free to try it with and without and let me know what you think! (I also love this brand of sweet bean paste for my zhajiangmian recipe.)
What type of tofu should I use to make Chinese mapo tofu?
You can make this dish with whatever you have on hand or prefer; I’ve experimented this dish with both soft and firm, and found that soft tofu absorbs the flavor of the dish the best, so that’s what’s recommended in the recipe. However, firm tofu can be easier to handle (as it breaks less easily), so it's a great option for beginners!
Can I make a vegetarian version of Chinese mapo tofu?
Yes! I’ve replaced the ground pork with minced shiitake mushrooms and it works great as a vegetarian mapo tofu!
Another vegetarian version I've made replaces the minced meat with crumbled extra firm tofu. I press the extra firm tofu block between paper towels to remove as much moisture as possible first, then crumble it into little pieces and stir fry until dry.
Check out my other popular Chinese recipes:
If you enjoyed this Chinese mapo tofu recipe...
I'd be so grateful if you left me a review below!
Be sure to subscribe to the smellylunchbox email list to receive more delicious recipes and cooking tips straight to your inbox. You can also follow me on Instagram, TikTok, and Youtube @smelly.lunchbox to stay up-to-date on my latest posts and recipes. I can't wait to share more with you!
Please note: I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.
Chinese mapo tofu
- 14 oz soft tofu (not silken; can sub medium firm)
- 6 oz ground pork
- 1.5-2.5 tablespoon spicy bean paste
- 1 tablespoon sweet bean paste (optional but recommended; can sub hoisin)
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil for cooking
aromatics & seasoning
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 3 tablespoon water
- 4-5 dried red chilies chopped (optional)
- 1 tablespoon fermented black bean optional
- 1 teaspoon spicy chili oil optional
- scallions and sesame seeds for garnish optional
Prepare the aromatics and tofu
- (If you already have Sichuan peppercorn powder, feel free to skip this and the next step.) Start by heating up a dry pan on low heat, and add the red peppercorns. Swirl them in the pan occasionally, and let toast for 3-4 minutes or until fragrant. Remove from heat.2 teaspoon red Sichuan peppercorn
- If you have a mortar and pestle, this is the perfect time to use it! Pound your toasted red peppercorns into a fine powder. A spice grinder works here too. If you don't have either, put the peppercorns in a sealed ziploc bag, lay it flat, and pound them with something hard and flat or press them with a rolling pin to break them up. The final result should be almost powder-like.
- Next, mince or finely grate your aromatics: your shallot, ginger, and garlic. Set aside in a bowl.2 tablespoon minced shallot, 1 tablespoon minced or grated ginger, 2 tablespoon minced garlic
- Lastly, prepare your tofu by slicing the block up into 1 inch cubes. Keep the sliced cubes on your cutting board -- moving them only when you need to add them to the pan will reduce the likelihood of them breaking.14 oz soft tofu
Cook the aromatics & ground pork
- Start by heating up a pan on low-medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of neutral oil.1 tablespoon neutral oil for cooking
- Once the oil is warm, add the aromatics: shallots, ginger, and garlic, and stir until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes.
- Next, add your chopped dried red chilies (if using), and add your spicy bean paste. If you plan on only using the spicy bean paste, use the full 2.5 tbsp. If you plan to use a mixture of spicy and sweet bean paste (what I like personally), then use 1.5 tablespoon of spicy bean paste, and 1 tablespoon of sweet bean paste. Keep the pan on low-medium heat -- we're not trying to brown anything here, we're just slowly extracting all the flavors. After ~2 minutes, you should see the oil turn red from the spicy bean paste.1.5-2.5 tablespoon spicy bean paste, 4-5 dried red chilies, 1 tablespoon sweet bean paste
- (optional) If you want that deeper, fermented flavor, add the optional fermented black beans at this step.1 tablespoon fermented black bean
- Next, add your ground pork, and turn up the heat to medium. Incorporate everything that's in the pan with it well, and let the pork cook until there's no more pink left. This should take about 3-5 minutes.6 oz ground pork
- Deglaze with Shaoxing wine, scraping up any bits that may have stuck to the pan. Add the sugar and ground red peppercorns (feel free to use as much or as little as you like, I ended up using about ½ teaspoon of the fresh ground powder).1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine, 1.5 teaspoon sugar
Make the mapo tofu sauce
- Next, add your low-sodium chicken broth (or water) to the pan. Carefully add the tofu by sliding it off your cutting board, making sure to be gentle so they don't break apart. To be even more careful here, I like using a wooden spatula to stir the pan (no metal or any utensil with sharp edges!). Make sure most of the tofu gets covered in the liquid.1 cup low-sodium chicken broth or water
- Turn the heat up to high to get the liquid to boil. Once it starts boiling, turn the heat down to a simmer, and cook for 4-5 minutes. In the meantime, in a separate bowl, prepare your cornstarch slurry by mixing 1 tablespoon cornstarch with 3 tablespoon cold water.1 tablespoon cornstarch, 3 tablespoon water
- Once it has simmered for 4-5 minutes, add your cornstarch slurry, mix gently, and cook for another 2 minutes or until the liquid in the pan has thickened a bit. Add a drizzle of sesame oil and chili oil (optional), and you're almost done!1 teaspoon sesame oil, 1 teaspoon spicy chili oil
- Do a final taste test to make sure it's spicy, salty, and flavorful enough. If not, feel free to add more chili oil, dash of salt if needed, and sugar to balance out any saltiness. I often end up adding about ¼ teaspoon or ½ teaspoon of salt at the end. You can also finish with more Sichuan peppercorn powder if you like it extra numbing. Garnish with scallions and sesame seeds, and it's ready to serve over some rice!scallions and sesame seeds for garnish