Alden Boon

Chen’s Mapo Tofu: Tuck into a Marvellous Bowl of Mapo Tofu Atop Japanese Short-grain Rice

03/05/2018

The history of mapo tofu is an interesting one, dating back to the Qing Dynasty. The creator of the dish was (widely accepted to be) an elderly lady by the name of Chen Senfu, who owned Chen Xingsheng Restaurant, Wanfu Bridge, Chengdu. Because her face was pockmarked, the locals gave her the moniker “Chen Mapo”: ma referred to the pocks while po is a word meaning “old woman”. Guess human beings were always judgemental and superficial. Circa 1909, the restaurant, now renamed Chen Mapo Tofu Restaurant, was included in an edition of Chengdu Famous Food Stores, and very quickly gained popularity across China.

In Singapore, we have Chen’s Mapo Tofu, unrelated to the above-mentioned restaurant, the possessive form probably saving the restaurant from a very expensive lawsuit (see how important grammar is, kids?). It is the brainchild of Chef Chen Kentaro, who is of Shisen Hanten fame. His grandfather, Chef Ken Min, was born in Chengdu; he migrated to Japan in the late 1950s. The chef began Shisen Hanten to showcase Sichuan cuisine to the Japanese, and was eventually knighted as the “Father of Sichuan cuisine” in the country.

Chen's Mapo Tofu OUE Downtown Gallery
Chen's Mapo Tofu OUE Downtown Gallery
Chen's Mapo Tofu OUE Downtown Gallery
Chen's Mapo Tofu OUE Downtown Gallery

As its name suggests, the restaurant’s calling card is the Mapo Tofu Don (S$9.50): Blocks of silken tofu sat amidst a red-hued glop that, let’s face it, if entered into a beauty pageant would not go very far. But while it was lacking in the looks department, its flavour profile more than made up for it. Mapo tofu calls for two key ingredients: fermented chilli broadbean paste and Sichuan peppercorn. Every time I eat a dish with the latter, I feel as if I were navigating a minefield, never knowing when a wrong move would cost me my limbs, in this case, my tongue. But I did not have to tread carefully this time; the incredibly delicate tofu which broke asunder with every dig of the spoon, minced meat and sluice of oil went down well, packing a note that is not overwhelmingly spicy. It paired impeccably with the Hitomebore rice grains imported from Iwate Prefecture.

Another signature dish here was the Dan Dan Mien (S$9.50). Again, this dish is named after people. Dan dan refers to the pole that street vendors used to carry over their shoulders, with baskets filled with noodles and sauce poised on each end. The restaurant’s rendition was the total opposite of the Mapo Tofu Don, whose notes were piquant. The noodles were bereft of taste, the texture rather dry and floury instead of being silky. Perhaps the soup version would fare better. But saving grace came in the form of Sichuan Dumplings, whose skin was remarkably soft; they were also partially submerged in a shallow pool of chilli oil.

Located in OUE Downtown Gallery,  Chef’s Mapo Tofu draws the business crowd, so it is no wonder that the place is a ghost town come mid-afternoon. Come here for the classic mapo tofu if you are hankering for something to spice up your day.

Chen’s Mapo Tofu
Address: 6A Shenton Way #02-29, OUE Downtown Gallery, Singapore 068809
Telephone: +65 6221 3206
Opening Hours: 11am – 10pm Daily

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.

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