Mapo tofu is extremely popular both in and outside of China, perhaps because it was meant to be adaptable. The type and amount of both tofu and meat is often varied and even the spicy sauce can be tuned to the desired level of heat.
Equipment: Spice grinder or mortar and pestle
Tips: Pixian chili bean paste (doubanjiang): A salty and spicy umami concentrate made with chiles and fermented fava beans, the paste gives deep flavor to braises, soups and stir-fries. It is sometimes labeled "broad bean" chili paste.
Fermented black beans (douchi): These black beans are preserved in a heady mix of liquor and spices. The beans can be added to an array of dishes to add both salt and flavor. The more familiar Cantonese black beans make a good substitute but are fermented with salt only, so rinse them before using.
Sichuan chile flakes: Whole dried chiles that have been fried until crisp and ground into a mix of flakes, powder and seeds. Korean pepper powder, available at Korean markets and online, is a good substitute.
To grind Sichuan peppercorns, sort and discard any black seeds or twigs. Toast in a dry skillet over low heat until very fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes (do not brown them). Let cool, then grind in a spice grinder or in a mortar and pestle to your desired coarseness. Sift out any yellow husks that don't break down. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to 3 weeks.