The Story Behind Ma Po Tofu


Ma po tofu as rendered by Danny Bowien at Mission Chinese

Andrew D. asks: What is ma po tofu and where can I try some?

Dear Andrew D: Ma po tofu is one of the signature dishes of Sichuan cuisine. It used to be that you had to go to a Sichuan restaurant to get it, but now it seems to be appearing on Cantonese and Hong Kong menus all over town. And there’s an interesting story behind the dish, which features bean curd, ground meat, fermented bean paste, chile oil, and, of course, Sichuan peppercorns, often in abundance.

“Ma po” might be translated something like “crater-faced old woman,” and it refers to the originator of the dish, who suffered from smallpox as a child, leaving her disfigured. She lived in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan, over 100 years ago. She apparently operated a makeshift roadside café on the outskirts of town, some say because her disfigurement made her something of a pariah.

Many accounts suggest the dish was made to order out of raw ingredients that varied in proportion to how the diner wanted it, sometimes omitting meat or adding wood-ear fungus. It was always hot as hell, though, rich in chile oil, red chile flakes, and peppercorns.

The best version I’ve had lately came from Lower East Side newcomer Mission Chinese, where the chef makes it using his own fermented fava bean paste, and sluices the dish with more chile oil than usual. I also especially like the renditions at Land of Plenty on the Upper East Side and Yi Lan Halal in Flushing. In the East Village, Hot Kitchen’s is good too.

If you’ve never tried Sichuan peppercorns before, the dish will come as a shock. These shrub berries have an anesthetizing effect on the mouth and make a drink of water taste like metal. First-time tasters are sometimes alarmed, sometimes delighted. I hope you fall into the latter category.

Yi Lan Halal offers a mellower rendition, but no less stunning.