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.

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Location Info

Mission Chinese Food

154 Orchard St., New York, NY

Category: Restaurant

Land of Plenty

204 E. 58th St., New York, NY

Category: Restaurant

Yi Lan Halal Restaurant

42-79A Main St., Flushing, NY

Category: Restaurant

Hot Kitchen

104 2nd Ave., New York, NY

Category: Restaurant

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Carlito Chinto
Carlito Chinto

I would not call Mission Chinese Food a "Chinese Restaurant" having travelled around China, worked and lived in China since 1978. I think the best Chinese food is either in Taipei,Taiwan or  Beijing,China. It's a toss up and politics obviously come into play. Vancouver,Canada also has great Chinese food. Btw I'm a full blooded Chinese whose great grandparents emigrated to Cuba and  eventually with family ending up Miami in the early 1960's. We saw Mao's China evolve into a economic powerhouse.I'm not a proponent of fusion Asian cooking. It detracts from it's fundamental essence. I'm not a fan of these "dissidents" who are too young to know what life was like. But I digress.


Where can I find great vegetarian ma-po, tofu?


 Carlito - You're saying Mission Chinese Food is not a Chinese what is it?

Carlito Chinto
Carlito Chinto

Trendy imitation for the 21th century New York City foodie scene. Not meant as a positive assessment. In 1973 on Second Avenue btw 45th -46th St there was one of the best outside of China  Sichuan restaurants. Simply called Sichuan House. Only one back then. In NYC presently I like  Wu Liang Ye and Northern Chinese Shangdong wise back in the day I liked Weihai Dao [Port Arthur] in Chinatown and until recently I enjoyed South China Garden in Chinatown for Cantonese.I tried the new Pan Asian Fusion with my son & his wife at Red Farm,Mission Chinese,Ruby Foo and Chinatown Brassiere. They are not authentic !I've seen a decline in culiminary quality with regards to Chinese Cooking but a geo-exponential increase in number of restaurants and types of regional cooking in NYC with the new increase in the Chinese population in America. Believe it or not there were open face porkbelly in a mantou before David Chang and his "innovative" restaurants on Monroe Street almost 40yrs ago in NYC. It was opened by a Northern Chinese who didn't fit in with the majority Toisanese and Cantonese Chinese in NYC Chinatown. He had fried and steamed dumplings back then. Now it's available via every Fukienese  dumpling joint in Chinatown. His two sons became lawyers and a medical Doctor.