Tofu has been one of my favorite dishes and whenever I had a chance to eat at a local Chinese Restaurant, I would sometimes order a Mapo Tofu. It’s one of my favorite Chinese dish with tofu, minced beef swimming in the red sea of chili and spicy sauce. This fiery dish has also been popular around the world. When we were in Chengdu, China we made sure not to miss eating Mapo Tofu on where the dish was actually created – at Chen’s Mapo Tofu Restaurant.
Chen’s Mapo Tofu Restaurant goes way back in 1862 during the Qing Dyansty (1644-1911). First found at Wanfu Bridge, north suburb of Chengdu, the restaurant was called Chen Xingshng Eating House. Mrs Chen was the main chef then. She cooked a tofu dish in bright red color, crispy beef cubes and spicy hot tofu diced in beautiful shapes.
The story of how the name Mapo Tofu came to be is quite interesting. Mrs Chen was a pockmarked woman who was only allowed to stay at the outskirts of the city due to her appearance. She lived by the roadside where travelers usually traverse. During those times, rich merchants usually stay within the city. One stormy night, a father and son had to find shelter at the outskirts and ended up at Mrs Chen’s home. She made them the dish on what we now called Mapo Tofu. The two found it so delicious that whenever they visit the city, they would drop by her place to eat. Soon after more people start visiting her home. Gourmands at those time also frequented the place and soon it became one of China’s famous dish. Some people soon started calling the dish Chen Mapo Tofu which literally means “bean curd made by a pockmarked woman“. The word Ma comes from the word mazi meaning pockmarked while po means old woman.
The restaurant, of course, at this time moved locations yet still retains the way they cook the Mapo Tofu as grandma Chen did. It is now located within the city where we just walked a couple of blocks away from Tian Fu Plaza. It was actually already late at night and thought we wouldn’t catch it open but there were still a few customers inside. I was excited to taste the Mapo Tofu and it didn’t disappoint. I could say the taste was ambrosial. The best tasting mapo tofu ever. And the key was with the numbing spice through the mixture of ground and fried sichuan pepper.
We ordered some other dish like the BBQ Fish on Sticks and Chili Rabbit. The BBQ fish had too many fish bones for me, but the chili toppings on it was also delicious. I’m new to eating a rabbit and the meat taste good, but a bit too bony for me. Well not surprising since Sichuan Cuisines are more often than not has more bones since they believe the meat closer to the bones is more tastier.
Eating at Chen’s Mapo Tofu Restaurant is a dining experience spanning more than a couple centuries old. It’s one of China’s culinary heritage that’s clearly still alive and serving at this time.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.