Sourcing Pixian Doubanjiang (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 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.
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.
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 according to its website. 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 two or three years 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.
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.
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.
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 Project SHOP. 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.