Ma stands for "mazi" (Pinyin: mázi Traditional Chinese 麻子) which means a person disfigured by pockmarks or leprosy, the latter is also called 痲 má or 麻風 máfēng. Po (Chinese 婆) translates as "old woman, crone". Hence, Ma Po is an old woman whose face was pockmarked. It is thus sometimes translated as "Pockmarked-Face Lady's Tofu".
According to Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook: "Eugene Wu, the Librarian of the Harvard Yenching Library, grew up in Chengtu and claims that as a schoolboy he used to eat Pock-Marked Ma's Bean Curd or mapo doufu, at a restaurant run by the original Pock-Marked Ma herself. One ordered by weight, specifying how many grams of bean curd and meat, and the serving would be weighed out and cooked as the diner watched. It arrived at the table fresh, fragrant, and so spicy hot, or la, that it actually caused sweat to break out."
Nowadays, "Mapo Dofu" restaurants open at several locations in Chengdu, with one on Xiyulong St. and another near the Qingyang Gong Temple to serve the best version. In 2005, the restaurant near Qingyang Gong Temple was burned down in a fire.
True Mapo doufu is powerfully spicy with both conventional "heat" spiciness and the characteristic "mala" (numbing spiciness) flavor of Sichuan cuisine. The feel of the particular dish is often described by cooks using seven specific Chinese adjectives: 麻 (numbing), 辣 (spicy hot), 烫 (hot temperature), 鲜 (fresh), 嫩 (tender and soft), 香 (aromatic), and 酥 (flaky). These seven characteristics are considered to be the most defining of authentic Mapo doufu. The authentic form of the dish is increasingly easy to find outside China today, but usually only in Sichuanese restaurants that do not adapt the dish for non-Sichuanese tastes.
Mapo Doufu can also be found in restaurants in other Chinese provinces as well as Korea, Japan and Taiwan, where the flavor is adapted to local tastes. In Japan, where the dish is called mābō dōfu (マーボー豆腐), it was introduced by Chen Kenmin, known as the deity of Sichuan cuisine and who opened the first Sichuanese restaurant in Tokyo in the 1950s, and subsequently became one of the most well-known Sichuan dishes that he spread all over Japan, matched only by prawns in chili sauce in how well it caught on. Instead of using only the salty and spicy bean paste, Chen also adopted sweet bean paste in the recipe to make the dish less spicy and less oily. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, similar variations can also been found. His son, Iron ChefChen Kenichi, recreated the dish on a number of occasions on the show, including a vegetarian version using soybeans instead of ground meat and an even spicier version using Tokyo X pork. When he prepared it in Kitchen Stadium during the first battle with tofu itself as the theme ingredient, culinary critic and longtime Iron Chef judge Asako Kishi told him, "If you didn't make Mapo Tofu, your father would be unhappy in heaven, because he is the one who introduced it here in Japan." To this day, one Chen restaurant, simply named Chen Mapo Doufu, is dedicated to serving Mapo Doufu at a cheaper price than in the main restaurant but using the same recipe.
In the west, the dish is often adulterated, with its spiciness severely toned down to widen its appeal. This happens even in Chinese restaurants, commonly those not specialising in Sichuan cuisine. In American Chinese cuisine the dish is often made without meat to appeal to vegetarians, with very little spice, a thick sweet-and-sour sauce, and added vegetables, a stark contrast from the authentic. Vegetarian can easily be made without meat at all (and simply just tofu) while not toning down the spices; this version is technically referred to as Mala doufu although this name is not always well-known.