Mapo doufu is an ancient Chinese dish that made me feel dizzy the first time I ate it. I happened to be working in a pathology lab at the time, and we ran platelet aggregation studies on my blood, which showed that my platelets were inhibited in a bizarre pattern not consistent with any known disease. Curious about the nature of this dish, and hoping to find an explanation for my lethargic platelets, I explored its history a bit (while I waited for my platelets to come around).

The dish has been used in ancient Chinese cultures as a longevity tonic. Turns out, this belief is backed by some solid scientific principles. Dale Hammerschmidt, a physician at the  University of Minnesota School of Medicine, ingested mapo doufu and then studied his own blood. He found that the dish had quantifiable anti-clotting properties. He wrote an article entitled “Szechwan Purpura” for the New England Journal of Medicine (1980; 302(21):1191-3) in which he ascribed much of the anticoagulant power of the dish to the tree ear mushrooms it contains. Apparently, many of the other ingredients, including bean curd, garlic and red pepper, may provide additional anticoagulant benefits too.

Here is a nice recipe for mapo doufu from Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook. If you eat more than a bowlful, I’d recommend not shaving for a few days!

Mapo Doufu

¼ cup dried tree ear mushrooms plus 1 cup boiling water
3″ piece of fresh ginger
8 or more cloves garlic (for a yield of 2 Tbsp. chopped garlic)
5 scallions
6 fresh water chestnuts (can substitute jicama)
½ lb. ground pork or beef
2 lbs. fresh bean curd, cut into ½” cubes
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 Tbsp Chinese rice wine or cooking sherry
2 tsp. cornstarch plus ¼ cup water, combined in a small bowl
6 Tbsp. peanut oil
1 ½ tsp. hot pepper flakes in oil
1 Tbsp. hot pepper paste
2 Tbsp. oyster sauce (optional)
1 tsp. sugar
another 3 Tbsp. soy sauce, plus 1/3 cup water
½ tsp. ground, roasted Szechwan peppercorns
another 1 tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. salt, or to taste

Put the tree ears in a small bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Let them soak for about 15 minutes, until they become soft and gelatinous.

Peel the ginger, then chop it into tiny pieces, about the size of a match head. Clean the scallions, then chop them, both the white part and about one-third of the green, into pieces slightly larger than the ginger, about 1/4″ in diameter. If a food processor is not available, march-chop the ground meat for a finer texture. Add 1 Tbsp. of the chopped ginger and one scallion’s worth of the chopped scallions to the ground meat, along with the soy sauce, sesame oil, and wine, and mix thoroughly. If a food processor is available, process the ginger, scallion, ground meat, soy sauce, sesame oil, and wine all together. Set aside the meat mixture for about 30 minutes.

Peel the garlic, then chop it coarsely. Combine it with the rest of the chopped ginger and mince them together until they reach the consistency of a thick paste (or use a food processor). Mrs. Chiang insists that the finer you chop the garlic and ginger the more interesting the finished dish will be.

Cut the dark skin off the outside of the water chestnuts, then chop them into pieces about the size of a match head.

Drain the tree ears, then rinse them and pick them over carefully to remove the tiny impurities, like little pieces of wood, that might still be embedded in them. Then mince them into little pieces the size of a match head.

Just before you are ready to begin cooking, add the cornstarch to the meat mixture and blend thoroughly.

Heat your wok or pan over a moderately high flame for about 15 seconds, then add the peanut oil. It should be hot enough to cook with when the first small bubbles begin to form and a few small wisps of smoke occur.

When the oil is ready, quickly throw in the garlic and ginger and vigorously stir-fry them over a medium flame for about 30 seconds, using your cooking shovel or spoon to scoop the ingredients from the sides of the pan and then stir them around in the middle, so they won’t burn or stick.

Continue to stir-fry while you add the hot pepper flakes in oil, hot pepper paste, water chestnuts, tree ears, and oyster sauce. Then stir-fry for another 30 seconds.

Add the meat mixture and keep stirring it as it cooks, taking special care to break up any large chunks of meat that stick together.

After the meat has cooked for about 1 minute and has lost its pinkish color, throw in the bean curd and the remaining chopped scallions and stir-fry everything together. Then add the sugar and stir-fry for another 30 seconds.

Pour in the 3 Tbsp. soy sauce and the 1/3 cup water and wait for the liquid to boil, then let the contents of the pan cook over a moderate flame for 2 minutes more.Add the peppercorns and stir thoroughly.

At this point, determine how much sauce there is in the pan. If the dish seems watery, you should get ready to add the cornstarch and water mixture that you have already prepared. But if there does not seem to be much liquid, you won’t need the cornstarch.

Make sure that you stir up the cornstarch mixture before you pour it into the pan, then stir-fry everything over a medium flame for a few seconds until the sauce becomes clear and slightly thickened.

Add the 1 tsp. sesame oil and stir it in thoroughly; then, just before serving, taste the dish for salt. It should taste sharp and clear, with just a hint of sweetness. Stir in the 1 tsp. salt, if you want, and serve.


Note: the yummy photo of Mapo Doufu above was taken by Todd F. (Flickr ID: digitalexistence) and can be found at: