Mapo doufu is one of the best-loved dishes of the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu. It is named after the wife of a Qing dynasty restaurateur who delighted passing labourers with her hearty braised tofu, cooked up at her restaurant by the Bridge of 10,000 Blessings in the north of the city. The dish is thought to date back to the late nineteenth century. Mrs Chen's face was marked with smallpox scars, so she was given the affectionate nickname ma po, "pock-marked old woman". The dish is traditionally made with minced beef, although many cooks now use pork. This vegetarian version is equally sumptuous.
Vegetarians find it addictive: one friend of mine has been cooking it every week since I first taught her the recipe some 10 years ago. In Sichuan, they use garlic leaves (suan miao) rather than baby leeks, but as they are hard to find, tender young leeks make a good substitute, as do spring onion greens. You can also use the green sprouts that emerge from onions or garlic bulbs if you forget about them for a while (as I often do). This dish is best made with the tenderest tofu that will hold its shape when cut into cubes.
500–600g plain white tofuSalt4 baby leeks or spring onions, green parts only4 tbsp cooking oil2½ tbsp Sichuan chilli bean paste1 tbsp fermented black beans, rinsed and drained2 tsp ground red chillies (optional)1 tbsp finely chopped ginger1 tbsp finely chopped garlic100ml stock or water¼ tsp ground white pepper2 tsp potato flour mixed with 2 tbsp cold water¼–½ tsp ground roasted sichuan pepper
Cut the tofu into 2cm cubes and leave to steep in very hot, lightly salted water while you prepare the other ingredients (do not allow the water to boil or the tofu will become porous and less tender). Slice the baby leeks or spring onion greens at a steep angle into thin "horse ears".
Heat a wok over a high flame. Pour in the cooking oil and swirl it around. Reduce the heat to medium, add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is a rich red colour and smells delicious. Next add the black beans and ground chillies (if using) and stir-fry for a few seconds more until you can smell them too. Then do the same with the ginger and garlic. Take care not to overheat the seasonings; you want a thick, fragrant sauce and the secret of this is to let them sizzle gently, allowing the oil to coax out their flavours and aromas.
Remove the tofu from the hot water with a perforated spoon, shaking off excess water, and lay it gently in the wok. Push the tofu tenderly with the back of your ladle or wok scoop to mix it into the sauce without breaking up the cubes. Add the stock or water, the white pepper and salt to taste and mix gently, again using the back of your scoop so you don't damage the tofu.
Bring to a boil, then simmer for a few minutes to allow the tofu to absorb the flavours of the seasonings. Add the leek slices (if using) and nudge them into the sauce. When they are just tender, add a little of the flour and water mixture and stir gently as the liquid thickens. Repeat once or twice more, until the sauce clings to the seasonings and tofu (don't add more than you need). If you are using spring onions rather than leeks, add them now and nudge them gently into the sauce.
Pour the tofu into a deep bowl. Sprinkle with the ground roasted sichuan pepper and serve.
• This recipe is taken from Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop (Bloomsbury, £25). Order a copy for £20 from the Guardian bookshop
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