I’ve grown up eating mapo tofu. My dad always made his own Cantonese version, which I would happily gobble up with my rice. Despite the fond memories, I was not satisfied with the mapo tofu I’ve come to know. It was too much like soybean, too mild in spice, and totally lacking the iconic numbing peppercorn. It didn’t have that robust flavor I was craving.
So what makes the flavor robust? Good question! Pixian doubanjiang has actually been fermented for much longer than the Hong Kong brand, giving it a much darker color and earthy flavor. If I had to draw a parallel, it would be similar to a smokier Korean chili paste (gochujang). This doubanjiang gives the mapo tofu its body and flavor. That’s why I don’t recommend substituting it with any other regional brands.
Doubanjiang: Here is a common brand of doubanjiang that I can find in my local Chinese supermarket. It keeps for a while and is great in braising and other Sichuan dishes.
Douchi: For the douchi, you can use the regular kind that comes in a container or bag. They can be stored airtight in the fridge for a while. I sometimes like to substitute regular douchi with the Godmother brand, Lao Gan Ma chili oil with black beans, if available. It’s delicious, but probably because it contains MSG.
Chili Oil: A homemade chili oil would be great, but it is not uncommon to use a store-bought sauce. I prefer Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisp Sauce or Lee Kum Kee Chiu Chow Chili Oil. Again, be warned that these contain MSG.
Yes, this recipe requires a lot of specialty ingredients. If you just love authentic style mapo tofu, I think it’s really worth it. You can adjust the spice and saltiness however you like, or even make it without any MSG. In my opinion, home-cooked mapo tofu is unbeatable. If you have the time to source out these ingredients, give it a try. You will not be disappointed.