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, grandmother, 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 Chengdu 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 Taiwan, Japan and Korea where the flavor is adapted to local tastes. In the west, the dish is often greatly changed, with its spiciness severely toned down to widen its appeal. This happens particularly in Chinese restaurants 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 original dish. This vegetarian version is sometimes referred to as MaLa Tofu.