Wonton in Zanthoxylum schinifolium etzucc sauce

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From Nancy Friedman (@Fritinancy):

Item 47 on the menu says simply:

téngjiāo chāoshǒu 藤椒抄手 ("wonton [with] Sichuan peppercorn")

So where did all the rest of that come from?

First of all, this is a patently Sichuan style dish, as are most of the other items that are visible on this part of the menu in the photograph.  Item #42 has the same sauce, but it's for dumplings instead of for wonton.

Even the word for "wonton" used on this menu is characteristically Szechwanese.  For most non-Szechwanese speakers, chāoshǒu 抄手 would normally mean "fold arms" (though it also signifies "wonton" in Heilongjiang, parts of Shaanxi and Anhui, Wuhan, and other scattered locations in north and central China), but here, as a Szechwanese dish, it means "wonton", a topic that we have several times addressed on Language Log:

There are even more ways to write (and say) "wonton" in Chinese than there are in English ("wantan, wanton, wuntun", etc.), viz., MSM húntún, Shandongese húndùn 馄饨, yùntún 餫飩, Cantonese wɐn4tɐn1 雲吞, Minnan piánsi̍t 扁食, to name just a few.

Now, on to the seemingly super exotic sauce!

Zanthoxylum is a genus made up of approximately 250 species of deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs.  The fruit of several of the species in this genus is used to make Sichuan pepper, which I've always called "Sichuan peppercorn".

Zanthoxylum schinifolium Siebold & Zucc. is one of these spice yielding species.

There was an ongoing discussion of the "etzucc" part of the name of the spice following @Fritinancy's post, where Ben Zimmer identified it as deriving from botanists Siebold and Zuccarini (Flora Japonica).

Zanthoxylum schinifolium Siebold & Zucc. is mastic-leaved prickly ash or Wild Zanthoxylum. In Japanese it is calledイヌザンショウ / 犬山椒, and in Korean it is called sanchonamu 산초나무 ("Japanese pepper tree").  It seems to be a favorite of bonsai enthusiasts.

The usual names for this plant in Chinese are xiāngjiāozi 香椒子 ("aromatic pepper"), qīnghuājiāo 青花椒 ("green flower pepper"), or just huājiāo 花椒 ("flower pepper"), though the latter term is broader and includes a wider variety of spice yielding plants than the specific one on this menu.  They are sometimes referred to in English as "Chinese coriander".

My Chinese in-laws were originally from Shandong, but they spent the years from about 1937-47 in Sichuan, when they moved to Taiwan, so they picked up a lot of Szechwanese customs, cuisine, and even a bit of language.  They always referred to this spice as májiāo 麻椒 ("numbing pepper"), and that is indeed a very good name for it.  I remember once going to Chinatown in Las Vegas and trying to buy Szechwan peppercorn for a dish that we were planning to make that day.  It was not available in any of the grocery stores, but I did find it in a Chinese pharmacy, where it was treated as a controlled medicine.

Before proceeding further in our inquiry, I want to say a few words about just what this má 麻 character signifies.  It is, to say the least, highly polysemous, having the following meanings:  "hemp; cannabis; flax(en); jute; pocked; pockmarked; pitted; leprous; rough; coarse; sesame; tingle, numb (with implications for anesthesia); a surname".  Because it has all of these different meanings, má 麻 is readily adaptable for punning and plurisignation.  These traits are relevant for the investigation upon which we have embarked.

Májiāo 麻椒 ("numbing pepper") is a key ingredient in many signature Szechwanese dishes, including, of course, málà jī 麻辣鸡 ("numbing and spicy chicken") and the ultra famous mápó dòufu 麻婆豆腐.  I need to say something about the name of mápó dòufu 麻婆豆腐.  On menus, it is often referred to as "mapo tofu", and people who aren't conversant in Mandarin but who love Chinese cooking use the term freely (they know well at least what the second part of the name means because it has been borrowed into English).

If you go beyond that and ask Chinese what the "mapo" part means, they will inevitably tell you that it stands for "pockmarked old lady" or some such.  Eugene Wu, the former East Asian librarian at the Harvard-Yenching Library, is quoted in the Wikpedia article on mapo tofu as declaring that, as a boy, he ate mapo tofu at a restaurant in Chengdu, Sichuan run by the original Pock-Marked Ma herself!

Now, I know Eugene Wu personally and consider him to be a trustworthy gentleman, but I have always felt that there's something fishy about this oft-repeated story concerning "Pock-Marked Ma" (Eugene Wu is not the only person who tells it!).

In the first place, I must point out that, if the "ma" syllable indeed refers to a mázi 麻子 ("pockmarked person"), then it can't also be her surname, so the "Ma" of "Pock-Marked Ma" must be a way of referring to an old lady.  Nonetheless, the earliest occurrence of mápó / Má pó 麻婆 I know of in a Chinese text is to an old lady surnamed "Ma", not to a "pockmarked old lady" (see below).

Incidentally, this reference to Eugene Wu's story about "Pock-Marked Ma" is one of the earliest mentions of mapo tofu in English.  It's from Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook (1976), by Ellen Schrecker with John Schrecker.

Also dating to 1976 is Kenneth H. C. Lo, Chinese cooking on next to nothing:

Ma-po tofu (hot mashed bean curd with ground meat of Szechwan)

This is a very well-known bean-curd dish from West China that appeals greatly to all those who enjoy hot-tasting foods.

Pushing back a bit earlier, we have James Kirkup, Streets of Asia (1969):

It was nice to end the meal with properly cooked rice — dry and tasty with a traditional topping of extra-hot ma-po tofu (bean curd paste). I had become so accustomed to the bland, tasteless, gluey rice of Japan that I had quite forgotten how good rice can taste when cooked in this way, with every grain separate.

The next earliest reference to mapo tofu in English that I am aware of is in this article by Dorothy Crandall, "Cooking Party, Peking Style", Boston Globe, Oct. 17, 1965, p. A66:

Pretty Lily Wang, wife of an M.I.T. architect, stirred the bubbling wok of Ma Po bean curd and added another generous sprinkling of hot red pepper. "Young Chinese like their food hot … so do American visitors."

This article features the formidable Joyce Chen (1917-1994), who was tremendously popular in the Boston area around the same time as the redoubtable Julia Child (1912-2004), doyenne of French cooking.

I lived in Boston from 1972-1979 and frequented Joyce Chen's restaurant, so I got to know quite a bit about her, such as that nearly all of the top Chinese chefs in the entire Boston area had originally worked for her, that she once talked a robber who entered her house in the middle of the night into leaving peacefully (I think that she told him she was sorry for him and served him food and drink), and that she may be said to have invented Chinese cooking for our time (with apologies to T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).  She was appropriately honored with a "forever" stamp in 2014.

It is curious that I am personally acquainted with so many of the people who were associated with the popularization of mapo tofu in America, and that most of them were located in the Boston area, with Joyce Chen at the apex.  But there's an even earlier mention of mapo tofu than Dorothy Crandall's (1965) in the Boston Globe.  That's Stanley Karnow, "The Who and How of Chinese Chow", Life, Jan. 26, 1962, p. 24:

A specialty called Ma-po tou-fu, or Pock-marked Grandma's Beancurd, supposedly immortalizes the pock-marked wife of a cook in Chengtu, a city in Szechwan province.

This is almost as early as the first mention of mápó dòufu 麻婆豆腐 that I'm aware of in a Chinese text.  That is in ch. 4 of the 1961 espionage novel Hóngyán 红岩 ("Red Crag") by Luo Guangbin 罗广斌 and Yang Yiyan 杨益言 that was set in 1949 Chungking (Chongqing) — see Hanyu da cidian, 12.1276a.  There probably are earlier occurrences in more ephemeral sources, but it doesn't seem as though mápó dòufu 麻婆豆腐 has a very long history in China.

The earliest mention of a mápó 麻婆 I know of in a Chinese text is from one of the Weird Fictions in the Tàipíng guǎngjì 太平廣記 (Extensive Records from the Era of Great Peace) (first published in 978). But the reference here is to a Má pó 麻婆, an old lady surnamed "Ma", not to a "pockmarked old lady".

Brendan O'Kane has found a number of apparent references to a mápó 麻婆 ("pockmarked old lady") in drama scripts from the Ming period (1368-1644), and perhaps already in the Yuan period (1271-1368).  Brendan has even found a tune title, "Mápózi" 麻婆子 ("Pockmarked Old Lady"), in Jiàofāng jì 教坊記 (A record of the office in charge of imperial music) (mid-8th c.).  Yet, whether mápó / Má pó 麻婆 signifies "a pockmarked old lady" or "an old lady surnamed 'Ma'", I haven't found a connection with tofu until the 20th century, and fairly well into it at that.

To sum up this section of our inquiry, I will simply confess my longstanding suspicion that the mápó 麻婆 of mápó dòufu 麻婆豆腐 does not just mean "pockmarked old lady", but that it is related to the numbing quality of the peppercorn which is a prominent part of the dish.  At the same time, it may also evoke the appearance of the dish, which has bits of fermented black beans (douchi, my favorite ingredient in the universe of Chinese cooking), minced meat, chilies, and, of course, peppercorns (!) scattered over the surface of the white tofu.  Once the name got attached to the dish — mápó dòufu 麻婆豆腐 ("tofu that has a numbing sauce and resembles the face of a pockmarked old lady") — it is not surprising that legends about the original creator of the dish being such a woman, or the husband of such a woman, would naturally surface.  Judging from the stories I've heard, it would seem that this happened multiple times as a means for capitalizing upon the phenomenal popularity of the dish.

By the way, mápó 麻婆 in the sense of "pockmarked old lady" is a specifically Sichuan, more specifically Chengdu, topolect expression.  See Hànyǔ fāngyán dà cídiǎn 漢語方言大詞典 (Unabridged Topolect Dictionary of Sinitic), vol. 4, p. 5706b.  Strangely, in the Tàigǔ 太谷 topolect of Shanxi Province, it means "dragonfly".

Now, back to the botany.

The menu entry we began with calls the spice in question téngjiāo 藤椒 (lit., "vine pepper") and identifies is as Zanthoxylum schinifolium Siebold & Zucc.  Very few Chinese I know, even those who are "into" gastronomy, have ever heard of téngjiāo 藤椒, so I presume that it is a local term of restricted circulation.  Moreover, although the people responsible for this menu identify it as Zanthoxylum schinifolium Siebold & Zucc., online sources refer to it as Zanthoxylum armatum DC.  As will become apparent in the following paragraphs and pictures, it is evident that there are a variety of different (mainly Sichuan) peppercorns, and that they come with an array of names, mostly local in nature (only a few of these names are used much outside of Sichuan).  All of these different Sichuan peppercorns have slightly different appearance and supposedly also different taste for the true connoisseur, but most Chinese I've talked to inform me they can't tell the distinctions among them and only know one or two general names.

Here are a few unretouched comments from informants (only Pinyin has been added):

1. (from Beijing)
Yes, májiāo 麻椒 is used a lot in Sichuan 四川 cooking. A similar spice is huājiāo 花椒. Májiāo 麻椒 and huājiāo 花椒 are both peppercorns but they taste a little different. Huājiāo 花椒 is smaller with a reddish brown color while májiāo 麻椒 is bigger with a greenish brown color. The latter will produce a more numbing taste than huājiāo 花椒. Sichuan food is famous for its numbing and spicy flavor because people use both májiāo 麻椒 and dried red paper in cooking. Huājiāo 花椒 is used in many northern provinces and it tastes not so numbing.

2. (from Beijing)
I do not know if there are other terms for májiāo 麻椒. At least people in Beijing call it májiāo 麻椒.

3. (from Beijing)
I perhaps have seen the name téngjiāo 藤椒 in some restaurant menus, but do not quite know what that is.

I can't remember people referring to that as májiāo 麻椒⋯⋯We always say huājiāo 花椒 (no matter whether in Beijing, Zhejiang, or Anhui [the latter two places are where her parents are from]) This website tells us that májiāo 麻椒, téngjiāo 藤椒, and huājiāo 花椒 are not the same, and gives a sketch of their differences.

Yet for me, who is not from Sichuan and far from being a gastronome, I doubt if the differences (esp. that between huājiāo 花椒 and májiāo 麻椒) can be detected by my taste buds.

4. (from Liaoning in the Northeast)
We refer to Sichuan peppercorn as májiāo 麻椒, too. Sometimes I heard people use huājiāo 花椒 or chuānjiāo 川椒. I am told that májiāo 麻椒 and huājiāo 花椒 are not exactly the same, but they look almost identical to me. Some say májiāo 麻椒/ chuānjiāo 川椒 is the name of huājiāo 花椒 in Sichuan Province. There is also another kind of jiāo 椒 called qīnghuājiāo 青花椒, which appears equally identical with a difference in the color.

Here are pictures of the three types mentioned by the last informant:

májiāo 麻椒:

huājiāo 花椒:

qīnghuājiāo 青花椒:

No matter what you call it in whatever language or topolect, and no matter whether you slather a sauce made from it over wonton or tofu or dumplings or chicken or something else delicious, Sichuan pepper will cause a peculiar numbing-tingling sensation in your mouth, and you will not recover from it right away.

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer for the early references to mapo tofu in English, and to Brendan O'Kane, Jing Wen, Fangyi Cheng, Wei Shao, Xiuyuan Mi, Zhenzhen Lu, Angela Tan, and Chin-yi Young]


  1. J. Random Hacker said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 1:06 am

    We don't say 麻椒 in Sichuan. There is 花椒 which is the usual Sichuan pepper, and 藤椒 which has a stronger and slightly different taste from usual 花椒.

  2. John Rohsenow said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 1:11 am

    btw, my wife, who knows no Chinese at all, except by proximity, always
    refers to this dish as "Ma and Pa toufu."

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 7:38 am

    It's interesting that vol. 4, p. 5707 of the big Hànyǔ fāngyán dà cídiǎn 漢語方言大詞典 (Unabridged Topolect Dictionary of Sinitic) that I mentioned in the original post lists májiāo 麻椒 as meaning làjiāo 辣椒 ("chili; hot pepper") in Central Plains (Shanxi) Mandarin and in Fujian (Shāxiàn 沙县).

    The Hànyǔ fāngyán cíhuì 汉语方言词汇 (Vocabulary of Sinitic Topolects) lists the different names and pronunciations of terms for "wonton" in as many as twenty different places across the length and breadth of China. In the first edition, published by Wénzì gǎigé chūbǎnshè 文字改革出版社 in 1964, see p. 97a, and in the second edition, published by Yǔwén chūbǎnshè in 1995, see p. 126a.

  4. Miles Archer said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 7:57 am

    Love the numbing pepper. I wish I could find it in the US.

  5. JHH said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 7:59 am

    Richard Hosking, in his very useful A DICTIONARY OF JAPANESE FOODS: Ingredients & Culture (1969), under the entry "Sansho," writes:

    "Japanese pepper Zanthoxylum piperitum… These pods are aromatic rather than hot and have a lightly numbing aftereffect on the tongue, very similar to that of the closely related Szechwan pepper, Zanthoxylum bungeanum (or Zanthoxylum bungei or Zanthoxylum simulans)…"

  6. Francois Lang said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 11:54 am

    @ Miles Archer: Sichuan Pepper shouldn't be difficult to find. Amazon and Penzey's I know have it. Just type "sichuan pepper" into Google, and click on shopping.

    –Sam Spade

  7. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 12:15 pm

    I suppose that if we go with Dr. Mair's focus on the "numb" (or by implication, "numbing") sense of 麻, we have to then try to determine what the combination 麻婆 means. Is it a "numb old lady"? Or "numbing old lady"? Or since punning is also part of the discussion, maybe it's a play on "骂婆" / "scolding old lady"?

    If one wanted to describe the dish as "old lady's numbing doufu", wouldn't it be called "婆麻豆腐"?

  8. Mangosteen said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 12:28 pm

    Interesting — I just posted two such mangled translations of _Zanthoxylum schinifolium_ in the Bad Translations pool on Flickr in the last week. This spice must be having a moment!


  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 1:30 pm

    I'm interested in the word "numb" and Prof. Mair's combination "numbing-tingling". To me, "numb" means not feeling anything, and "tingling" means feeling "pins and needles" that aren't there. The words are almost opposites. Does this spice deaden other sensations while creating a tingling feeling?

    I find numbness in the mouth unpleasant, but if a dish has enough chili in it, a little anesthesia might be a welcome relief.

    I have the impression that for some people, "numb" means "tingling", probably tingling often follows numbness as sensation returns. The dictionaries I looked at (OED, M-W, and AHD) don't know about this meaning. Is there good evidence for it?

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

    Incidentally, while looking up "numb" I learned that it was originally the past participle of "nim", meaning "take", with cognates in German and other languages. If your foot is numb, it, or your power of feeling and moving it, has been taken. (Yes, I know lots of people here can't remember not knowing that.)

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 2:02 pm

    I like your reflections, Jerry Friedman.

    What happens AFTER your foot or arm "falls asleep" and then you start to feel sensation in it? I always feel an almost electric tingling.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 2:04 pm

    Marvelous contributions, Mangosteen!

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 2:59 pm

    Thanks, Victor Mair! Yes, after my foot "falls asleep" I get tingling as it wakes up. Is that what "numb pepper" does—make your mouth numb and then cause tingling? There's an Asian grocery store in this town, so I could probably find out.

    Evidence for my suspicions about numb from Reeves and Swenson, Disorders of the Nervous System:

    'First of all, as with most neurologic complaints, you must determine what the patient means by “numbness.” Some patients are describing loss of sensitivity (anesthesia or hypesthesia) or distorted sensations (paresthesia), which is often described as tingling.'

  14. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 3:34 pm

    I have had experiences where I ate Sichuan dishes with so much majiao on them that my whole mouth (including lips) felt like cardboard — a dentist could probably have carried out procedures on my teeth and gums and I wouldn't have known, but when the tissues started to come back to life, so to speak, there was such a buzzing and tingling in them that it was painful to endure.

    BTW, everybody, I started to translate a record of the earliest reference to mapo tofu in a Chinese text that I know of, but I have office hour, a reception, and much else to take care of for the rest of this afternoon, but will probably be able to post it sometime this evening.

  15. Daniel Barkalow said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 5:01 pm

    This sauce is also famous (around Language Log, at least) for being in "benumbed hot vegetables fries fuck silk".

  16. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 5:32 pm

    @Daniel Barkalow

    That goes back to March 11, 2006:


  17. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 6:14 pm

    The "history" section of the Chinese Wikipedia article on mapo tofu (mápó dòufu 麻婆豆腐) gives a fairly detailed explanation of the origin of this dish and its name. I might as well translate it for the benefit of all mapo tofu lovers (please forgive the roughness of this rushed rendering).



    As for the origins of mapo tofu, the account in the Old Records of Lotus / Hibiscus Tales (Fúróng huà jiù lù 芙蓉話舊錄) by the Qing period author, Zhou Xun 周詢 (1865-1910), is the most detailed:


    Outside the north gate of Chengdu, there was a Chén mápó 陳麻婆 ("Pockmarked Old Lady Chen") who was good at making tofu. She would combine the costs of the materials for flavoring and her labor in the price of the tofu dish, with each bowl selling for 8 pennies (old money). She also sold drinks and rice, and, if they needed to add some pork or beef, then the customers could bring their own, or she would cut it for them, either way would be fine. Most people didn't know the name of her shop, but all you had to do was mention "Pockmarked Old Lady Chen", then everybody knew who you were talking about. Customers who lived four or five tricents [one tricent = three hundred paces] away didn't consider that too far to go [for her tofu].


    This dish was probably created not long after 1862 by the proprietress, surnamed Chen, née Liu, of a small restaurant called "Chen Xingsheng Food Shop" in the northern suburbs of Chengdu near the Bridge of Multitudinous Blessings. Because there were pockmarks on Chen Liu's face, people called her "Pockmarked Old Lady Chen". The tofu dish she invented and cooked was called "Pockmarked Old Lady Chen's tofu" (Chén mápó dòufu 陳麻婆豆腐). Later, as this dish became very popular, customers who didn't know the original name of the shop referred to it as "Pockmarked Old Lady Chen's tofu shop"….

    During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, because of the campaign to destroy the "Four Olds", for awhile the name of the dish was changed to "numbing and spicy hot tofu" (málà dòufu 麻辣豆腐).




  18. Jeff W said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 6:46 pm

    @ Jerry Friedman

    Well, FWIW, the first time I had one of those málà spices in Chengdu, the sensation was more like putting one’s tongue on a AA battery than some sort of anesthetic numbness, for me, anyway. Apparently, one study shows that the sensation is like that of a 50 hertz vibration.

    And I did appreciate Victor Mair’s explication of mápó dòufu. Again, when I was in Chengdu, something as authoritative as a tourist brochure (or restaurant placemat, perhaps—I can’t recall) gave the impression that the original creator of the dish ran a restaurant in the not-so-distant past (like maybe the 1920s or 1930s) and that that restaurant was still in existence, well, somewhere in Chengdu. I kind of wondered where it was. Now I know next time I’m there not to go too far out of my way looking. (On the other hand, I suppose I could just ask Eugene Wu.)

  19. Jeff W said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 6:48 pm

    This dish was probably created not long after 1862 by the proprietress, surnamed Chen, née Liu, of a small restaurant called "Chen Xingsheng Food Shop" in the northern suburbs of Chengdu near the Bridge of Multitudinous Blessings.

    So maybe there was an actual restaurant?

  20. Chau Wu said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 7:26 pm

    A bit off the topic, but there's another dish popular in the U.S., the famous Governor Tso' chicken. The inventor is Mr. Changgue Peng 彭長貴. A Hunanese, he lives in Taiwan, now at a high age of 96.

    A news article in Chinese about the inventor is linked below, which describes how the dish came about and has a video at the end:


  21. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 7:35 pm

    @Jeff W


    or maybe Eugene Wu's story was being told by someone else a century before him

    By the way, Eugene Wu was born in Sichuan:


  22. J. F. said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 7:39 pm

    According to internet searches there are several TV programs and movies referring to various types of 麻辣女 in the title, but I'm not sure what 麻辣 is intended to convey.

    According to internet images searches, 麻辣女 means girls in abbreviated clothing and/or provocative poses, but given the current climate in Chinese broadcasting, I'm fairly sure these programs don't involve naughty pics.

  23. Ray Girvan said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 9:04 pm

    Small world! In March, I read Mitch Cullin's excellent novel A Slight Trick of the Mind (source for the forthcoming movie Mr. Holmes) which concerns Sherlock Holmes in retirement at 93. One of the central threads of the book concerns Holmes's correspondence with a Mr Umezaki concerning prickly ash ("or, as it was called in Japanese, hire sansho") and his expedition to Shimonoseki to seek a specimen and try the cuisine.

  24. Brendan said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 10:52 pm

    @J.F. – Not sure whether it's still current,but six or seven years ago, there was a particularly nasty term referring to working girls from Sichuan province, the first two characters of which were 麻辣. On a somewhat more benign note, the Chinese name of the 90s UK earworm band Spice Girls was 辣妹子, a term that's in fairly general usage for sexy girls. There's also the more recent 辣媽, "yummy mummy."

    As for the pockmarked Mrs. Chen: In 2004 or 2005, I visited a restaurant in Chengdu that claimed to be the birthplace of 麻婆豆腐. The meal I ate there made zero impression on me.

  25. Jeff W said,

    May 7, 2015 @ 11:01 pm

    …maybe Eugene Wu's story was being told by someone else a century before him

    Well, it might be that Eugene Wu was mistaken about what he saw as a child but it doesn’t sound exactly like something he heard about that he would have adopted as his own memory.

    This page has a reference to a restaurant of that name dating from 1909:

    In the Handbook of Chengdu published in 1909, this shop and “Chen Mapo’s Tofu” as well as Zhengxingyuan Restaurant and Zhong’s Rice Dumpling Shop etc. were listed as the 22 [sic] “famous food shops in Chengdu”.

    and that handbook, apparently, isn’t fictitious—a reference is found here. (Of course, the handbook could have been wrong.)
    Wu, who was born in 1922, could easily remember that restaurant (if that’s the one in fact that he’s referring to) as a boy of six or eight—or would have at the time that Szechwan Cookbook was written, although I would seriously doubt that he was served by the actual Chen Liu (if there was one), given the over-60-year span. (It’s tempting to just email Wu and ask what his memory was, just to see how much it matches up with what is said about that restaurant. Dropping by might be a bit presumptuous, although he does live less than a half hour away from me, apparently.)

  26. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2015 @ 7:49 am

    My friends, Ron and Susan Chan Egan, live right next door to Eugene Wu and his wife Nadine (both still going strong at 92), on the Stanford campus. Here are some interesting notes on majiao from Susan:


    This is most interesting! As a Cantonese who never had "northern" food (to us, "north" is anywhere north of Guangdong ) until I went to college in Taiwan, I did not know the difference between chili pepper and Sichuan pepper.
    Last summer, Ron's colleague Lee Haiyan brought us two bottles of ground pepper from Sichuan, one red and one brown. The brown one has a delightful numbing effect. Ron and I have become quite addicted to it, calling it "magic dust." I had thought the brown stuff was roasted, but having read your wonderful piece, I now realize it is 麻椒/花椒,whereas the other is just plain chili pepper.


    If we ever want a definitive answer to what Eugene Wu remembers about Pockmarked Old Lady Chen's mapo toufu restaurant, seventy or eighty years after he went there, I could request that Susan knock on his door and ask him.

  27. julie lee said,

    May 8, 2015 @ 2:08 pm

    Victor Mair comments:
    "I have had experiences where I ate Sichuan dishes with so much majiao on them that my whole mouth (including lips) felt like cardboard — a dentist could probably have carried out procedures on my teeth and gums and I wouldn't have known,"

    It so happens that a teenager in my family loves to pour bottled red hot-pepper sauce on his food. The other day, his mother, a physician, saw him do it and said: "Don't eat too much hot pepper I don't think it's good for you. There's something in it that's an anaesthetic." She was talking about hot pepper or hot chili , LA JIAO in Mandarin,not Sichuan pepper(corn), HUA JIAO or MA JIAO in Mandarin. I wonder if MA JIAO also contains an anesthetic.

  28. julie lee said,

    May 8, 2015 @ 2:15 pm

    A friend of mine in Taiwan eats an enormous amount of hot-pepper sauce with his food. When I expressed some alarm, he said: "You know, hot-pepper (LA JIAO) sauce kills germs. They did an experiment with it and it killed all the germs." He is a professor of a biological science.

  29. julie lee said,

    May 8, 2015 @ 2:18 pm

    p.s. This friend is a professor bio-systems and bio-statistics and does medical studies.

  30. Ray Girvan said,

    May 8, 2015 @ 3:46 pm

    @julie lee: hot pepper … There's something in it that's an anaesthetic

    If I understand it rightly, the deal is that capsaicin is neurotoxic (there are various papers on this). In the short term, it's an irritant, but in the long term it actively damages the nerves it stimulates …

    Direct application of capsaicin to peripheral nerves results in an apparently irreversible functional impairment of unmyelinated afferent fibres implicated in nociceptive, viscerosensory and neurogenic inflammatory mechanisms.- Neurotoxic effect of capsaicin in mammals, 1987

    … and thus there's ongoing research into its potential as a long-acting analgesic (and perhaps anecdotal support for the story of elderly colonials claiming their taste-buds to have been burned away by decades of curry).

    While also activating nerve channels, the mechanism for the "tingling paraesthia" caused by the responsible compound in Sichuan pepper –hydroxy-α-sanshool – appears to be different. Fresh tarragon does this too, though I can't find anything on the chemical basis at this instant.

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 8, 2015 @ 4:05 pm

    Thanks to Victor Mair and Jeff W for describing their sensations, which I am now not in a great hurry to try.

  32. julie lee said,

    May 8, 2015 @ 8:28 pm

    @ Ray Girvan,

    Thank you very much for the information on the possible longterm neurotoxic effects of eating hot peppers. I will pass it on to people I know who eat a lot of hot pepper sauce every day.

  33. Jeff W said,

    May 8, 2015 @ 9:42 pm

    @ Jerry Friedman

    Well, to be fair about it, that was my first impression (along with the idea that I was having some sort of weird allergic reaction). I won’t say I liked it but over time I became a lot more accustomed to it. (I could easily keep up with my Chengdu hosts and eat whatever hottest Sichuan foods were offered—so I am not that squeamish about spicy or hot food, generally, neurotoxic effects of capsaicin be damned).

    I'd say it's one of those things that you “try once” at least, just because it’s really like no other food. (And, quite obviously, lots of people love it.)

  34. Ray Girvan said,

    May 8, 2015 @ 10:02 pm

    On a minor language point: the Wikipedia article was enlightening on what seemed a very unlikely chemical name, "sanshool". It turns out to be "sanshō + ol" – the Japanese name for the spice, with an -ol alcohol suffix.

  35. Jeff W said,

    May 8, 2015 @ 10:07 pm

    If we ever want a definitive answer to what Eugene Wu remembers about Pockmarked Old Lady Chen’s mapo toufu restaurant, seventy or eighty years after he went there, I could request that Susan knock on his door and ask him.

    Well, that saves me the trouble of popping over and bothering him. (I would have called first.)

    Here’s what the Wall Street Journal has to say:

    Mapo dofu…is named for its inventor, a woman named Chen who, in late 19th-century Chengdu, ran a food shop called Wanfu Qiao (Wanfu Bridge) with her husband. The restaurant’s existence, Ms. Dunlop notes, is substantiated by its mention in “Chengdu Tonglan: A General View of Chengdu,” a guide to the city’s famous eateries and street snacks published in 1909.

    The owners of Chen Mapo Dofu, a chain of restaurants in contemporary Chengdu, maintain that their shops are directly descended from the late 19th-century original. It’s a claim that’s impossible to verify, though [British food writer] Ms. Fuchsia] Dunlop thinks it may have merit because when the Chinese Communists nationalized privately owned restaurants in the 1950s, they usually left the businesses’ family names intact.

    The claim might be “impossible to verify” but maybe someone like Mr Wu could shed some light on it. If Mr Wu says something like “We lived half a block from Wanfu Bridge and ate at that restaurant, which seemed to be half a century old at the time, every week,” then that at least is aligned with other accounts. Obviously, he might remember nothing at all but his recollection, almost 40 years ago, obviously had some meaning for him—it made it into a cookbook, which probably doesn’t occur with the recollections of that many university librarians.

    There still seems to be a lot of mystery in drawing a straight line from the events circa 1862 to 1909 to the 1920s or 30s (the time of Mr Wu’s recollections) to now. I’m not so sure Susan, along with a Food Channel film crew, has to batter the guy’s door down but maybe a few probing mápó dòufu questions might yield some interesting information. I don’t want to be presumptuous and dole out assignments for Susan but I can’t be the only one who’s curious. It’s a matter of culinary history.

  36. Ray Girvan said,

    May 8, 2015 @ 10:10 pm

    @Jeff W: neurotoxic effects of capsaicin be damned

    I take the same view; I like my capsaicin. Lewis Carroll's Southey parody has it:

    "In my youth," Father William replied to his son, "I feared it might injure the brain; But now that I'm perfectly sure I have none, Why, I do it again and again."

    I'd be interested to give Sichuan pepper a whirl; we have a very good East Asian supermarket here that might just have it.

  37. Dave Cragin said,

    May 9, 2015 @ 12:26 am

    Speaking as a toxicologist (my training), it sounds scary when adjectives like "neurotoxic" is applied to a chemical. However, it needs to be considered in context. Consider that a major reason people drink alcohol is because it is “neurotoxic” and that “neurotoxicity” can make you feel good. A basic principle in toxicology is "dose makes the poison."

    Small amounts of capsaicin in the diet aren’t going to present a neurotoxic hazard.

    Route of exposure matters as well. Ray's citation mentions "direct application of capsaicin to peripheral nerves." This route of exposure is relevant to anyone who is cutting their skin open and painting their nerves with capsaicin, i.e., no one. Eating small amounts of capsaicin in your diet is a completely different.

    I also caution against using toxicity studies of pure capsaicin to assess the risks of peppers (it would make this post too long to explain… I teach a full 3 credit graduate course in risk assessment….).

    Hence, Julie Lee I wouldn’t worry your friends about the neurotoxic effects of eating peppers. There are notable risks in life. Eating hot peppers isn't one of them. Continue to enjoy Sichuan food.

  38. Oona Houlihan said,

    May 9, 2015 @ 5:51 am

    A mind-numbing (!) tour de force, thank you! "… next earliest reference to mapo tofu in English that I am aware of …" I was amazed at how many of these various mentions you could unearth. Simply because I suspect many of these are not/were not in online accessible text corpora. Like the brothers Grimm, of which Jakob seems to have had tens of thousands of index cards on words and their etymology, it is amazing how these sources often come together despite the suspicion that from a purely statistical standpoint they should really never be found (or who would read all newspapers and magazines and novels and textbooks and cookbooks and … cover to cover, and THEN remember words they MIGHT once need to source an article. I remember how I sometimes remembered, before the Internet, words from a certain, say, collected works and then had to labor for days to go through each tome rather diligently to actually find the exact spot, all the while, the further I progressed, fearing I had already missed it and was now only wasting time (most times, since our subconscious scans more than we trust it to, I did find it in the end though).

  39. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2015 @ 9:01 am

    @Oona Houlihan

    A fitting tribute to the superb sleuthing skills of Ben Zimmer.

  40. julie lee said,

    May 9, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

    Dave Craigin,

    I had to laugh when I came to the end of your comments, partly from relief. I do love hot peppers and hot-pepper sauce.

  41. Dave Cragin said,

    May 9, 2015 @ 10:14 pm

    Hi Julie, I'm glad you laughed. Obviously, there are more appropriate places than this bog to teach toxicology, but I was concerned that you & others might get the wrong idea about hot peppers. The blog is obviously read by many and I wanted to be sure that you & others had the right information.

    Now back to interesting discussions of language….

  42. K. Chang said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 2:45 am

    Very nice history of the mapo tofu. It's interesting that the Chinese language Wikipedia simply cited the Chendu story… and cited the dish inventor as Mrs. Pockface Chen (陳麻婆) and eventually nobody even remembered the actual name of the restaurant that she operated. :) Baidu did the same, albeit with slightly more detail, only traced it to late Qing dynasty. They even cited the legend about this poor family whose breadwinner died early on and two of their neighbors happened to be a butcher and tofumaker and they gave their leftovers to this poor family and the wife came up with this dish to make use of the leftover ingredients, and eventually started a small restaurant using this dish and later became "Best of Chendu" honoree.

    There are zillion ways to make mapo tofu. Supposedly you can make it with beef or pork, even beef brain and pork brain substituting for tofu. I shudder at the thought.

  43. maidhc said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 3:34 am

    My wife is a big fan of Fuchsia Dunlop, and she has been trying a lot of her recipes. One day though she was in a hurry, so instead of going to the Chinese grocery to buy Sichuan peppers, she went to a Vietnamese grocery that was more convenient. We both noticed a gritty texture to the food, like eating sand.

    It's only the husks that are used in cooking. You have to remove the seeds that cause the gritty texture. See http://cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/1497/avoiding-grittiness-with-sichuan-peppers

    At the Chinese market the husks were already separated, but at the Vietnamese market they weren't. No wonder the price was so good. You can buy the cheap ones and separate them yourself, but it's more work, of course.

  44. maidhc said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 4:02 am

    K. Chang: I think I've only had beef brains, but the texture and general blandness are similar to tofu. I've only encountered them in Mexican cuisine– tacos de sesos. Historically in British culture calf brains were considered food for invalids, something bland that wouldn't upset a sensitive stomach.

    I was going to say "invalid food", which used to be a term meaning "food for invalids", but now I'm afraid people wouldn't understand it.

  45. K. Chang said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 3:00 pm

    @maidhc — which brings up a very interesting observation… How many parallels are there between Mexican (or even South American) and Chinese cuisine? I know there's only so many ways to prepare food, but there seems to be some interesting parallels between the two cultures (and in a certain sense, Italian and Spanish culture too).

  46. Suburbanbanshee said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 9:24 pm

    I really like tongue-numb peppers, and I'm glad Chinese restaurants in this country are using them now. You don't have to use a lot of them to get that weird but pleasant numb sensation, and it does seem to make the taste of the other spices stand out even more.

    OTOH, I'm also really glad that I found out about them _before_ I ate a dish that included them, because I would have thought I was having a stroke!

  47. Victor Mair said,

    May 12, 2015 @ 7:07 pm

    In an attempt to clarify as many questions about the origins of mapo tofu as possible while we still have access to someone who ate in what is claimed to be the original restaurant in Chengdu, Sichuan where it was served, I requested that my friend, Susan Egan, who lives next door to Eugene Wu, ask him:


    1. if he remembers the surname of the owner of the Pockmarked Ma toufu restaurant

    2. if the tofu restaurant he ate in was near the 万福桥 in the northern suburbs of Chengdu

    3. was his home hear that bridge and restaurant?

    4. in Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook, it is said that Eugene ate at a restaurant run by the original Pock-Marked Ma herself, but — as I reported in a comment to my post — the story about the pockmarked old lady can be traced back to a Qing period source around 1862.

    5. whether there was just one restaurant selling mapo tofu at that time, or whether there were competitors

    6. anything else interesting he can remember mapo tofu in Chengdu

    7. what year was it?


    It was very kind of Susan to contact Eugene Wu on our behalf and send him the list of questions we hoped he'd answer. I copy below Susan's message to me relaying Eugene's answers.


    I ran into Eugene this afternoon. He saw our email but didn't have a chance to look at it carefully. He said the woman who owned the restaurant was 陈麻婆。You'd tell her how many jin of tofu and how many jin of pork you wanted, and she'd prepare the dish accordingly. The main thing is that it has to be 麻、辣、烫。

    He last ate at that restaurant in the 30s and could no longer recall the exact location. It was not in the center of town, but not very far.


    Even better, later in the day, Eugene himself wrote back with this very detailed and full response:


    My apologies for not having answered your questions about Ma Po Tofu sooner. I am at that forgetful age when, if I don't tend to something right away, I would most likely forget to do it. I'm glad Susan reminded me of your email earlier this afternoon. Now I am famous having been quoted in Wikipedia! Ellen Schrecker, author of Mrs. Chiang's Cook book, is Mrs. John Schrecker. You probably remember John from the Harvard days – John later taught at Tufts. To answer your questions more fully. The difference between 花椒 and 麻椒 is that the former when dried is more reddish in color and has a more potent 麻 flavor, while the latter when dried is more yellowish and not as potent in flavor. I never heard of 藤椒 when growing up in Chengdu. The reason, I guess, is because 花椒 was plentiful and was the preferred ingredient. I don't remember the name 萬福橋. It's been more than 70 years since I ate at the Chen MaPo's place. But it could very well be the location because we lived near 北大街, the main thoroughfare in the northern part of town, and you mentioned that the place is located in the "northern suburb."
    A slight correction of what Susan said about the way one ordered at Chen Mo Po's place. One ordered not just a dish of Mo Po Tofu, but specified how many cakes 塊 of tofu and many ounces 倆 of meat (pork and not beef). As far as I can remember, the place I ate was the only place that was the genuine MaPo tofu place in town. There was no other place by the name of Chen Mapo Tofu. As for the origin of MaPo tofu, you may be right that it could be traced to the 1860s, but as a youngster in Chengdu I never heard it mentioned that way. I hope this answers your questions. Incidentally, when I go to a new self-styled Sichuan restaurant these days, I always order MaPo tofu, and that always tells me if the restaurant is a genuine Sichuan eatery. It never fails.


    I think we now have about the fullest account of the history of mapo tofu that we could reasonably expect at this great remove of time and distance from when and where it first came into being.

  48. Jeff W said,

    May 13, 2015 @ 3:33 am

    Victor, thanks so much to you, Susan and, of course, Eugene Wu for following up on his recollection of the mápó dòufu restaurant.

    Just to clarify things (maybe), I made this map of the places mentioned in the post and some of the comments: you can see the location of Wanfu Bridge (萬福橋) (which, according to this Shanghai Daily piece was destroyed by flood in 1947 and where sits today the Renmin Road North Bridge); North Road (北大街), which Mr Wu says he and his family lived near; what the Wall Street Journal (and other sources) call the “original” Chen Mapo Dofu (original of the existing chain, perhaps); and another of the Chen Mapo Dofu locations, the Wenshuyuan St. store, which is actually closer to the site of the bridge and North Street.

    Nothing’s too far away—the furthest distance is less than a mile, from the site of the Wanfu Bridge to the original Chen Mapo Doufu store—and that bridge was located on the next major street just over from North Street about a half mile away, again, near where Mr Wu and his family lived. If, as he says, Mr Wu went to the only mápó dòufu place in town at that time, the original location would certainly work (and the Wenshuyuan branch would be even better, perhaps). Nothing is completely inconsistent with Mr Wu’s account nor with the earliest account; perhaps, in 1862, those were the “northern suburbs.” (If anyone can get his or her hands on the 1909 guidebook 成都通览, which, apparently, was reprinted in 2006, that might at least show which mápó dòufu place or places were around at that time.)

    All that said, even without the inconsistencies—and despite the fact that it has a definite “romantic” appeal—I’d still be skeptical about drawing a straight line from 1862 to the current “original” restaurant, even if Mr Wu ate there in his youth. If there were some clear link, the family running the place would undoubtedly be making it, with family histories, photos, and other documentation, rather than keeping it shrouded in some murky, half-mythic past (“impossible to verify,” as the Wall Street Journal says). They’re not, so there probably isn’t any.

    Thanks again to you and Susan for following up and to Mr Wu for his very kind, considerate and illuminating response. (And if it’s made Mr Wu’s day that he now knows he is quoted in Wikipedia, I’d say the entire discussion was well worth it.)

  49. Jeff W said,

    May 13, 2015 @ 1:28 pm

    I am not sure if Mr Wu might be reading this blog post but I wonder if the restaurant Mr Wu remembers is Chen Mapo Tofu/陈麻婆豆腐 (at 197 West Yu Long Street / 西玉龙街197号 on the map I linked to, again, here)—that’s the one, it seems, everyone refers to as the “original” restaurant. (It’s likely the original of the modern chain, at least.) If he’s curious, he could take a look at the map and perhaps say what, if anything, about his recollection fits with the actual known places.

    My own working mápó dòufu hypothesis right now, assuming everything Mr Wu says is true, is that something happened, possibly between 1862 and 1909 but by 1909 there is a mápó dòufu restaurant in Chengdu which is notable enough to make it into the handbook and if Mr Wu went to “the only place that was the genuine MaPo tofu place in town” a decade and a half later, they’re probably one and the same. I wouldn’t entirely discount Mr Wu’s reiterated claim (stated in an email message from Victor to me) that “the woman who owned the restaurant was 陈麻婆.” Some woman who owned the restaurant could easily say she was 陈麻婆 (why not? her restaurant is called that)—but for her to be the actual original “proprietress, surnamed Chen, née Liu,” (assuming one existed), well, she’d have to be really young at the outset and even then she’d be pretty up there in years by the time Mr Wu met her. (But, then again, Mr Wu, at 92, seems sempiternally youthful himself so maybe eating mápó dòufu makes it all possible.)

    Thanks, again, Victor to you, Susan, and, of course, Eugene Wu. My only regret is that Susan’s kind intervention now no longer gives me any pretext to drop by and meet Mr Wu, who seems like a very nice guy, and hear his mápó dòufu account firsthand.

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