Sourcing Pixian Doubanjiang (Chili Bean Paste)

doubanjiang

Pixian chili bean paste

Pixian Doubanjiang: The Soul of Sichuan Cuisine~~

If Sichuan pepper and chili pepper are the heart of Sichuan cuisine, then doubanjiang is the soul. The secret weapon in twice-cooked pork, mapo doufu and scores of other Sichuan dishes, douban is little known outside China—and the authentic version is little known outside Sichuan. Asian cuisines have various fermented bean pastes/sauces, usually made with yellow or black soy beans. But Sichuan’s version is made with dried fava beans, also known as broad beans, mixed with fresh red er jin tiao chili peppers and salt (and wheat flour) and fermented from one to eight years. The broad beans have a very different taste than soy beans, making the other Chinese bean pastes a poor substitute. A young douban will be bright red and chunky, while an aged one will be darker, the beans more broken down. The oldest ones are a deep, dark reddish-brown and intensely earthy/spicy/salty.

doubanjiang

Pixian doubanjiang aging to perfection

On our culinary adventures, Lotus Culinary Travel took travelers to Pixian County, the home of Sichuan doubanjiang, where we toured the original artisan douban company, Shao Feng He, learning the details of how the famed paste is made from the Brothers Chen. They are descendants of Chen Shouxin, who started the company during the Qing Dynasty, in 1666. Some of their douban’s secrets: The broad beans are left to ferment for several months in 3-foot-tall terra cotta crocks, then the chilies and other ingredients are added and it’s further fermented for at least a year in total. The thousands of crocks are individually hand-stirred every single day, and on good-weather days the lid is removed and the paste is left open to the elements, soaking up the Sichuan sun and dew that contribute to its incomparable flavor.

oldest Pixian doubanjiang factory

I took this photo of the Shao Feng He factory in 2007, before it lost hundreds of crocks of douban in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake

Unfortunately the Chens sell all their douban to private customers and do not export their products, but there are more than 100 douban makers in Pixian and a handful  of them do export. The Juan Cheng Pai label is made by The Sichuan Pixian Douban Company, founded in 1688. Its doubanjiang in red packaging is very much like the Chens’ and clearly made the same way, though on a much larger scale. Both companies have the designation of China Time-Honored Brand, meaning they have literally stood the test of time. When Andrew Zimmern asked us to show him around Sichuan for his Bizarre Foods Chengdu episode and wanted to see the whole production process of doubanjiang, we took him to the Sichuan Pixian Douban Company (where his crew lost a small camera in a giant vat of douban, ruining that batch by the time they found the camera and fished it out).

The red-label Juan Cheng douban we get in the U.S. is aged one year and made in large troughs. The company’s premium, longer-aged douban is aged in crocks and gets a daily massage. I once brought back a big bag of six-year-old douban from Pixian, and it was indeed a more intense version of its younger self, but even the one-year-old paste has loads of flavor and depth.

largest Pixian doubanjiang factory

The Sichuan Pixian Douban Company exports its products to the U.S.

Zimmern at doubanjiang factory

Lotus Culinary’s Rose and factory manager show Andrew Zimmern around the douban factory in Bizarre Foods

Sourcing Pixian Doubanjiang

The Sichuan Pixian Douban Company’s douban is the most popular in Chengdu and increasingly easy to find in the U.S. Another company out of Pixian, Chuan Ba Tian, packages its douban similarly and says it is aged three years, though it translates douban into English as “hot seasoning sauce.” And one other brand often seen in the U.S., made by the Sichuan Province Dandan Condiment Co., features a well-known-in-China comedian on its packaging. I have found all of these brands to be the real deal. The surest way to tell is by looking at the ingredients, which should include only broad beans, chilies, salt, wheat flour and possibly potassium sorbate as a preservative.

Pixian doubanjiang brands

Brands available in the U.S.: Sichuan Province Dandan Condiment Co., Chuan Ba Tian and Sichuan Pixian Douban Co. in two sizes

Most of the other bean sauces that say they are doubanjiang are made from soy beans and have all kinds of additional ingredients, such as oil, garlic, shrimp, etc. Hong Kong’s Lee Kum Kee makes a version called Chili Bean Sauce (Toban Djan) using both broad beans and soy beans (and various “flavor enhancers”) that is widely available. You can tell by looking and smelling that it’s not the same stuff. And you can guarantee it’s not hand-stirred for a year. As a rule, if it’s made in Hong Kong or Taiwan it’s going to taste different.

Doubanjiang NOT made in Sichuan

Pixian douban has only five ingredients; LKK version, too many to count

But now that Sichuan products straight out of Sichuan are finally showing up in the U.S., it pays to search them out. I have seen all three brands discussed above for sale at large Chinese supermarkets in the U.S. including 99 Ranch, Hong Kong Supermarket and Great Wall. We also sell the Juan Cheng Pai brand in The Mala Market. If you keep the douban in a sealed container in the refrigerator, it will last forever and you will have the soul of Sichuan within reach at all times.

Cooking With Doubanjiang

Doubanjiang tends to be pretty chunky, with some large bits of fava bean and chilies that have not entirely broken down in the fermentation process. Many cooks will run a knife through the douban before using it, mincing it into a smoother paste. Alternatively, you can run the whole batch through a food processor when you first get it. I personally don’t bother with that, since a larger piece here or there just reminds me of exactly what I’m eating and how it was made. What I am careful about is how much doubanjiang I use in a recipe. It can be quite salty, so when experimenting with it, it pays to add a bit at a time and taste as you go.

 

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15 Responses

  1. Gwen says:

    Hi Taylor,
    I spent 5 years walking through the countryside of Pixian doing an archaeological survey project, and frequently came across the makers of douban jiang when I met them in the villages and fields. Other things that add to the flavor of the sauce are– it is transported from processor to the packaging factory in woven bamboo containers that are lined with old newspapers that are glued to the insides of the containers with a glue that contains ox blood (I asked the basket makers why the glue was red in color). After the baskets are lined, but before they are filled with the paste, they are piled up 15 or 20 high into a tall cylinder and a fire is lit in the center of the cylinder to dry them by smoking. I am not sure if there is a particular fuel used for the fire, I think it might just have been the briquettes made from coal dust that one finds firing stoves all over the countryside, but I am not sure.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Oh my gosh, that’s fascinating! I can’t think of an ingredient anywhere with a more interesting story. Is this newspaper/ox blood/smoking procedure done to affect the taste or as a preservative of some kind? Is the procedure done only by small producers making douban jiang for the home or village, or is it also done by the large producers like the ones I mention here? Crazy story! Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Gwen says:

    I think the newspaper/ox blood procedure is done simply to make the woven bamboo baskets less porous. They are not tightly woven at all and the paste would seep through them without the lining. I think the oxblood is added to wheat paste for flavor, but how they came up with adding it to the paste is a mystery to me, and I didn’t think to ask. In other situations, like putting up posters or sealing over cracks with paper, the wheat paste used is just flour and water, no blood added. The smoking is to dry out and shrink up the bamboo strips making up the basket to make the container less leaky. I think its probably a procedure that is done by the smaller, more traditional manufacturers, I never got to see the large industrial scale ones that you have photos of, although the hotel that we used to live in was around the corner from the Pixian Douban Jiang Research Institute. Was that where you saw the large scale manufacturing?

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      That makes sense. Though it seems like it would be a lot easier to just buy some plastic containers. 🙂 I guess bamboo is cheaper. I have never seen the Douban Jiang Institute! We visit both the oldest commercial producer and the largest one in Pixian. And I’ve seen farmers making their own douban for family use. It would be cool to visit a smaller manufacturer too. Thanks for the interesting info, Gwen!

  3. Paul Winalski says:

    When I visited the Posharp website I found out that they are located in Quincy, Massachusetts, only an hour’s drive away, and that they have a brick-and-mortar Chinese supermarket as well as the online business. I drove there last Saturday. I was able to get Pixian douban jiang, sweet wheat paste, hot chili flakes from Sichuan, and both red and green Sichuan peppercorns (vacuum packed, and I’m sure a lot fresher than what I’m used to). And shaoxing wine that was not adulterated with salt. Now I’m ready to make some chao larou.

  4. jonetsu says:

    I just bought a bag. Tastes good, although surprisingly salty. After all the salt is there for fermentation purposes, to preserve the mixture. The information here is interesting. Anyone wonders if the vats shown here are ever closed ? I mean, all that time exposed to whatever is in the air ? I presume they are closed but then, the picture shows a lot of them opened. If they are closed, they’d open them one by one to stir the mixture, no ?

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Jonetsu,
      Yes, douban is salty. I always recommend starting with a bit and adding more if you need it. And adding no additional salt! Pixian is far enough outside Chengdu that the air quality is pretty good, but the vats are definitely closed in bad weather. The good stuff in crocks is hand-stirred every day, but I’m not sure about the big vats. In any case, they watch it closely. Hope you enjoy your douban jiang!

  5. Matt says:

    For those in Sydney, Australia….

    I just picked up a 454g pouch of the Sichuan Pixian Douban Co product, shown the in lower centre article photo, in the OK Chinese Supermarket on Forest Rd in Hurstville for only a few dollars.

    They also stock prickly oil and green Sichuan peppercorns too. What a find!!

  6. Sean says:

    Thanks Matt
    Be definitely heading over there sometime soon
    Had a great Mapo doufu in Melbourne recently at Ricky & Pinky
    http://buildersarmshotel.com.au/
    Sean

  7. Massimo Ceccarelli says:

    Is it possible to visit Shao Feng He?

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Massimo,
      It’s not possible anymore without some connections…Let me know if you need to visit for professional reasons, and I’ll point you in the right direction.

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