Mapo Tofu (麻婆豆腐) is an iconic Sichuan dish that's traditionally made from tofu, and ground meat. It's seasoned with a fermented chili bean paste called Doubanjiang, and fragrant Sichuan peppers. This combination creates the málà (麻辣) balance of spicy and tongue-tingling that's the signature flavor profile of Sichuan province. Although vegetarian mapo tofu isn't a traditional preparation it's fairly straight forward to make it plant-based.
Since the only ingredient in traditional Mapo Tofu that isn't vegetarian is the ground meat, it seems like a simple substitution to make it plant-based. The problem is that tofu doesn't have much flavor or texture on its own, so the meat plays a key role in both departments. Using a plant-based meat substitute like TVP may recreate the mouthfeel of ground meat, but it won't add the flavor or umami. Mushrooms, on the other hand, have a meaty texture AND they are loaded with naturally occurring glutamates and guanylates. These are the amino acids responsible for giving meat their umami-rich taste, and why mushrooms make such a good substitute. The only problem is that using a single variety of mushrooms makes for an easily identified flavor and a homogeneous texture that's not very convincing. To get around this, I've used a blend of four types of mushrooms.
I used a combination of Shiitake mushrooms, Maitake mushrooms (a.k.a. Hen of the Woods), and Eryngi mushrooms (a.k.a. King Trumpet) in equal parts. Both the Shiitakes and Maitakes taste meaty, and when they're caramelized, they come together to create a rich, savory flavor that tastes like a good piece of roasted meat. Eryngi mushrooms, on the other hand, don't have much of a flavor at all, but the large stems have a fibrous texture that mimics the muscle fibers in meat.
As flavorful as this mixture is, I still wasn't happy with the level of umami in the finished vegetarian Mapo Tofu. To amp this up, I started adding dried shiitake mushrooms to the mix. Dried Shiitakes contain fifteen times the concentration of glutamates of fresh shiitakes, and it works out well because we need a broth to replace the chicken stock anyway. When you rehydrate the mushrooms, they infuse the soaking liquid with their flavor, which makes for a fantastic broth.
I like passing the mushrooms through a meat grinder set up with the largest holes. This produces a mixture of mushrooms that's close to ground meat. If you don't have a meat grinder, you can get a similar texture by pulsing the mushrooms in a food processor, or by mincing them up with a knife.
When you bite into cooked ground meat, the liquid it releases contains a mixture of amino acids, fat, and collagen. The first gives the meat taste, and the latter two increase the viscosity of the liquid, which is perceived as richness. To replicate this with the ground mushrooms, I marinate them in a combination of soy sauce and rice wine, which both contain loads of amino acids. Then I add potato starch to the mixture, which helps bind the flavor ingredients into the mushrooms while making the liquid more "rich."
Honestly, the possibilities are endless. For a variation on vegetarian Mapo Tofu you can use this mixture to make Mapo Eggplant. This mixture could easily be subbed into most recipes using ground meat, such as meat sauce, gyoza, or soboro. For dishes like meatloaf and hamburg steak where the "meat" needs to stick together, you'll need to add a binder, such as chia flour or flax meal.
- 400 grams soft tofu (drained and cut into ¾” cubes)
- 15 grams dried shiitake mushrooms (2 medium mushrooms)
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 50 grams fresh shiitake mushrooms (roughly chopped)
- 50 grams fresh maitake mushrooms (hen of the woods, roughly chopped)
- 50 grams eryngi mushrooms (king trumpet, roughly chopped)
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon potato starch
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 9 grams douchi (~1 tablespoon fermented black beans, roughly chopped)
- 2 grams ground Sichuan pepper (~1 teaspoon ground, *see note below)
- 2 tablespoons doubanjiang (to taste)
- 50 grams scallions (white part only minced)
- 24 grams garlic (2 extra large cloves, minced)
- 20 grams ginger (1-inch piece, minced)
- Scallion greens (chopped for garnish)
- Lightly rinse the dried shiitake mushrooms off, removing any dirt or debris in the gills. Place them in a bowl and cover with 1 ½ cups of boiling water to rehydrate.
- When the shiitakes have rehydrated, squeeze any excess water out of them and trim off the stems and roughly chop.
- Measure out ¾ cup of shiitake stock, being sure to avoid the sediment that's settled to the bottom.
- Use a food processor or meat grinder to grind the rehydrated shiitakes together with the assorted fresh mushrooms to make your vegan meat. If you don't have either, you can use a knife to mince them up as well.
- Marinate the ground mushrooms with the Shaoxing, soy sauce, and potato starch.
- Fill a pan with 2-inches of water and bring it to a boil. Add a handful of salt along with the tofu and cook for 1 minute. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the tofu into a colander and let it drain.
- Heat a frying pan over high heat until hot. Add the oil and when it is shimmering, add the douchi and about half of the Sichuan pepper to the oil and fry for a few seconds until fragrant.
- Add the doubanjiang and swirl to combine with the oil.
- Add the scallions, garlic, ginger and ground mushrooms and stir fry the mixture has halved in volume, and the mixture is caramelized.
- Add the mushroom stock, tofu, and sesame oil and toss together until the sauce has thickened to your desired consistency, and the tofu is evenly coated.
- Plate the Mapo Tofu and dust with additional Sichuan pepper to taste. Garnish with the scallion greens and serve with rice.