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My first bowl of Mapo Tofu came when traveling through Meishan in China’s southern Sichuan province. Before lunch, I climbed up a mountain trail to see the 230-foot Leshan Giant Buddha, carved out of a sandstone cliff between 700 and 800 AD. My shoes were worn, my calves were on fire, and I was hungry.
After a ride in a motorized rickshaw, I arrived in Meishan, finding a restaurant on the street set inside a small garage. I’d heard about this quintessential Sichuan dish from fellow travelers and figured to give it a shot. The folklore around the name of the dish comes from the inventor, a pockmarked grandma. “Ma” is for pockmarked and “po” is for grandma.
The dish came to me in a plastic bowl, steaming with aromatic chili oil, garlic, chives and small black beans. It cost a grand total of 15 RMB, or $2, for a bowl. It was unforgettable.
The spicy chili oil coating made it feel velvety yet it was firm and rich at the center. After another bite, a lemony black pepper taste rose to the top. Later, a tingle. Then a faint numbness. What I was being introduced to was something foreign to most westerners.
Sichuan peppercorn was the culprit. It literally causes confusion in your nerve endings from the chemical hydroxy alpha sanshool, making your mouth tingle and go slightly numb.
The result with the spicy Mapo Tofu is your tongue becoming a battlefield with chili peppers activating the spice receptors simultaneous to Sichuan peppercorn numbing them. It was like being exposed to a new dimension of food.
When I saw it on the Chef Gong menu in Lansing, I knew I had to try it to see if the dish could compare to what I had almost 7,000 miles away.
Chef Gong is markedly more high class than a street food garage in Meishan, with fancy paper cut lanterns above each table and ornately decorated Beijing hot pots.
Opened in summer 2018, Chef Gong specializes in northeastern Dongbei and southern Sichuan cuisine. Here, Mapo Tofu is $13 a plate and it is worth every extra penny.
At first bite, I was transported back to that garage when I first felt my tongue tingling. The chili oil was silky, tofu was like velvet and the chives and beans provided a necessary texture crunch to the dish.
The server said he was surprised to see me stay for lunch and told me a lot of Americans walk out of the restaurant because they are expecting a cheap lunch or buffet to go. What a shame.
At least that’s more Mapo Tofu for me.
521 N. Clippert St. Lansing