Mapo tofu is a popular Chinese dish in which small tofu cubes are braised in a spicy chili bean paste-based sauce. It originated from the Sichuan province that’s known to have cuisine with bold flavors — pungency and spiciness. Mapo tofu is also a popular menu item at Chinese restaurants in Korea. It’s called mapa dubu (마파 두부) in Korean.
Mapo tofu recipes typically call for doubanjiang (dubanjang, 두반장, in Korean), which is a spicy, salty fermented bean paste and Sichuan peppercorns (aka Chinese coriander), but these ingredients are not staples in Korean kitchens. So, to recreate this dish at home, Koreans often use a combination of Korean fermented soybean paste (doenjang), red chili pepper flakes (gochugaru), and red chili pepper paste (gochujang). It works deliciously! It certainly is not the dish you get from your local Sichuan restaurant, but it has all the elements of the dish – soft tofu infused with intense savory and spicy flavors!
Start the cooking by stir-frying the aromatic vegetables and some gochugaru in hot oil. By adding the gochugaru at this stage, you’ll create the effect of using chili oil. You can still use chili oil, if available. To give the sauce more heat, you can add some dried hot peppers to the oil, use more gochugaru, or throw in some fresh hot chili peppers instead of the bell peppers I used in this recipe.
Pork is the classic meat for this dish, but you can use beef if you’d like, or omit the meat to make a vegetarian dish.
I prefer to use soft tofu, (not extra soft/silken) which is labeled as 찌게용 (for jjigae) if you buy Korean tofu packages, but the firm one, 부침용 (for pan frying) is okay too if you’d like a firmer texture.
If you like Korean flavors and tofu, you will love this dish! I bet you can whip this up in less than 30 minutes, making it suitable for a weeknight meal.
- 1 package tofu (14 to 16 ounces)
- 4 ounces ground pork (or beef)
- 1/2 medium onion, finely diced
- 2 scallions, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1/4 green bell pepper (or 1 green chili pepper), finely diced
- 1/4 red bell pepper (or 1 red chili pepper), finely diced
- 2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil (or chili oil)
- 1 tablespoon gochugaru, 고추가루, Korean red chili pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon doenjang, 된장, Korean fermented soybean paste
- 1/2 tablespoon gochujang, 고추장, Korean red chili pepper paste
- 1 teaspoon sugar ( or add one more teaspoon for a sweeter taste)
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon starch (mixed with 2 tablespoons water)
- Prepare the vegetables as specified.
- Cut the tofu into about 1/2 to 3/4-inch thick cubes.
- Heat a large pan with 2 tablespoons of oil over medium high heat. Add the onion, 1/2 of the chopped scallion, garlic, and gochugaru, and stir-fry until fragrant, 2 - 3 minutes.
- Add the meat, and cook until the meat is no longer pink, breaking up with a wooden spoon, 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add the soy sauce, doenjang, gochujang, and sugar and stir to blend with the meat. Add the bell peppers and cook briefly until slightly softened.
- Add 1-1/2 cups of water to the pan, and bring it to a boil.
- Then, slide the tofu into the pan, gently stirring to spread into a single layer. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes, gently stirring 2 to 3 times to make sure the tofu doesn’t stick to the pan.
- Gently stir in the starch slurry to thicken the sauce, and then the sesame oil. Cook for another minute or so to bring everything together. Garnish with the remaining scallion, and serve hot with steamed rice.