Japanese Mapo Tofu (マーボー豆腐 – Mabo Dofu)
Mabo Dofu is a Japanese adaptation of Chinese Mapo Tofu. In the same way that American Chinese food has been adapted to use locally available ingredients to appeal to American tastes, there is a whole genre of Japanese-style Chinese cuisine called wafu-chuka (和風中華 – literally Japanese-style Chinese).
Compared to the Sichuan original, Japanese Mapo Tofu has a milder flavor, sweeter taste, and is much less spicy. I prefer the fiery original version of the dish these days, but there’s something very comforting about the Japanese adaptation that I crave from time to time. It’s also an excellent alternative for families with kids or for people who don’t have a high tolerance for heat.
Table of contents
Why This Recipe Works?
- The use of ingredients such as miso and mirin gives the Japanese version of this dish a milder flavor, while adding the rayu (chili oil) allows you to adjust the level of heat at the table.
- Browning the aromatics with miso creates a very flavorful base for the dish.
- Mixing all of the sauce ingredients with the starch cuts out a few steps, making this dish’s preparation even easier.
Ingredients for Japanese Mapo Tofu
- Aromatics – The aromatics that form the basis for the Japanese version of Mapo Tofu are garlic, ginger, and some kind of onion. I’ve used ordinary yellow onions because they are easier to find outside of Japan than the Tokyo Negi (thick stemmed scallion) traditionally used in this dish. Mincing the onions and grating the ginger and garlic get them to brown faster and distribute their flavors more evenly.
- Ground Meat – Ground pork is the traditional meat to use for Mapo Tofu in Japan, but you can use ground chicken or beef if you like. Also, if you plan on making this plant-based go check out my Vegan Mapo Tofu for a blend of mushrooms that will work as a substitute.
- Stock – I used chicken stock, but any flavorful stock, including pork, vegetable, or mushroom stock, will work here.
- Mirin – A key characteristic of Japanese cuisine is to use sweetness to balance the salt in a dish, and Mabo Dofu is no different. Instead of using sugar, I like to use mirin for this, which not only adds sweetness, it also adds umami. Just make sure you are using real mirin. It should only include rice, water, koji, and alcohol in the ingredients and will NOT contain any corn syrup, sugar, MSG, or salt. If you can’t find real mirin, you can substitute 1 tablespoon of sake plus 2 teaspoons of sugar.
- Oyster Sauce – Oyster sauce not only seasons the dish but also adds a ton of umami. If you need to substitute, you can use 2 teaspoons of soy sauce and 1 teaspoon of sugar instead.
- Toasted Sesame Oil – Toasted sesame oil has a nutty flavor and is frequently used as a seasoning in Japanese-style Chinese dishes.
- Potato Starch – The starch thickens the sauce. Traditionally a slurry of water and starch are added at the end to thicken the sauce, but the tofu doesn’t take long to warm up, so I find it’s easier to mix the starch with the sauce ingredients before adding them to the pan. You can substitute other types of starch, but I generally prefer potato starch because it thickens without getting gluey, and the viscosity of the sauce doesn’t change much even after it has cooled (cornstarch will get hard).
- Tofu – I like using silken tofu for this dish. It’s produced using a different process from regular tofu, giving it a smooth custardy texture that jiggles like Jello. It’s also sometimes labeled “soft” tofu, but the problem is that I’ve seen brands selling softer regular tofu as “soft tofu,” which is more like the medium-firm tofu sold by other brands. If you want to make sure you get the right one, look for the green package by House Foods.
- Garnishes – I like to garnish my Mabo Dofu with a sprinkle of chopped scallions and a splash of rayu (chili oil), but these are both optional, and you can adjust the amount to taste.
How to Make Japanese Mapo Tofu
To avoid a mad rush to get everything into the pan at the end, I usually like to mix all of the sauce ingredients for Mabo Dofu before I start cooking. To do this, just whisk the chicken stock, mirin, oyster sauce, toasted sesame oil, and potato starch together and set them aside.
Then you want to create a base of flavor by preheating a frying pan and browning the onions, garlic, ginger, and miso together in vegetable oil. The Maillard reaction occurs as the ingredients brown, creating a ton of new flavor compounds which give the sauce depth.
Next, you want to add the ground meat and break it up into small pieces using a spatula. This helps disperse the meat into the sauce so that it coats each block of tofu more evenly.
When the pork is cooked through, you’ll want to give the sauce another stir to recombine any settled starch and then add it to the pan, along with the tofu.
To finish off the Japanese Mapo Tofu, heat the tofu through. When the tofu is hot and the sauce is nice and thick, it’s ready to serve.
Garnish with scallions and chili oil to taste.
Other Japanese Chinese Recipes
Mabo Dofu (マーボー豆腐) is the Japanese pronunciation of Mapo Tofu. It is much less spicy than the Chinese original and has a sweeter and more mellow flavor due to the use of Japanese ingredients like miso and mirin.
Like many dishes of Sichuan origin, Mapo Tofu was first popularized in Japan by Chen Kenmin. Born in Sichuan, China, chef Chen emigrated to Japan in the early 1950’s where he started Shisen Hanten(四川飯店). Realizing quickly that Japanese diners were not used to the potent spiciness of the dishes from his homeland, he adapted the recipes using local ingredients. Mabo Dofu and Ebi Chiri are two of the most popular Chinese dishes in Japan, and chef Chen is credited with creating both of them. To this day, Shisen Hanten is one of the best-known chains of Chinese restaurants in Japan, and his son Chen Kenichi was the Chinese chef on the original Iron Chef for its entire 6-year run.
These days, Mabo Dofu has become a staple of home cooking in Japan, with most home-cooks opting to use “instant” packets of sauce that are heated together with tofu to make a quick meal.
Mabo Dofu consists of two two-syllable words pronounced as follows:
ma like mall
bo like boat
do like don’t
fu like fool
No, neither the original version of this dish or the Japanese version is plant-based. It is fairly easy to make this plant-based, though, by making a few substitutions. You can use ground mushrooms for the meat, vegetable or mushroom stock in place of the chicken stock and soy sauce with a bit of sugar in place of the oyster sauce. I have a recipe for Vegan Mapo Tofu you can check out for details on what mushrooms to use.
Mabo Dofu Sauce
- 2/3 cup chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon mirin
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon potato starch
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 60 grams onion (1/2 small onion, finely minced)
- 9 grams grated garlic (1 very large clove, grated)
- 9 grams grated ginger (equal amount to garlic, grated)
- 1 tablespoon miso
- 150 grams ground pork
- 396 grams silken tofu (1 block cut into 1/2-inch cubes)
- Chili oil (to taste)
- Scallions (chopped for garnish)
- To make the sauce for the Mabo Dofu, add the chicken stock, mirin, oyster sauce, toasted sesame oil, and potato starch to a bowl and whisk to combine.
- Preheat a large frying pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add the vegetable oil, onions, garlic, ginger, and miso, and stir-fry the mixture until the onions are tender and the miso starts to brown.
- Add the ground pork to the pan and use a spatula to break it up into small crumbs.
- When the pork is cooked through, give the sauce ingredients another stir to reincorporate the settled starch and then pour it into the pan. Add the tofu and gently spread it around so that it’s submerged in the sauce.
- Cook the tofu in the sauce, stirring gently or tossing, until the tofu is heated through and the sauce has thickened.
- Serve your Japanese Mapo Tofu garnished with scallions and chili oil to taste.