Dòubànjiàng (豆瓣酱) is called the soul of Sichuan for good reason. We’ll cover what it is, how to use it, and where to buy it.
What doubanjiang is and how it’s made
Doubanjiang, also called Pixian-douban, Sichuan chili bean paste, broad bean sauce, and broad bean paste, has been a cornerstone of Sichuan cooking for hundreds of years – relatively young compared to Chinese soy sauce.
It’s made by fermenting approximately seven parts Sichuan chili peppers (erjingtao) and three parts fava (broad) beans mixed with wheat flour and salt.
Pixian doubanjiang is arguably the original and most well-known doubanjiang. Pixian is the former name of the Pidu District of Chengdu.
Pixian doubanjiang is a protected geographical indication (PGI) product, which is a designation designed to protect the quality and reputation of distinctive products that originate from certain regions. To be designated as Pixian doubanjiang it must include erjingtao chilis from Sichuan Province, fava beans from East Sichuan or neighboring Yunnan Province, and water sourced from the Pixian (currently Pidu) District.
The Sichuan Pixian Douban Company is the oldest continuous producer of doubanjiang having made it continuously since 1688. They still make their most mature versions in the traditional way, by fermenting the paste in large clay jars that line their yard (see photo below).
To make doubanjiang, split fava beans are ferment for around six months, fresh red chilis are fermented for two to three months, and then the chilis and beans are mixed in large clay jars and allowed to ferment together. During the day the jar are opened to the sun which is an important factor in developing the unique flavor of Pixian doubanjiang.
Doubanjiang is sold at different levels of maturity, usually from one to three years and up to ten years. In the traditional process, three-year doubanjiang is stirred with wooden paddles daily during the fermentation process.
Hongyou doubanjiang is a type of doubanjiang mixed with red chili oil. “Hong” means red and “you” means oil. You can see in the photo below, the one-year aged hongyou doubanjiang is red and bright while the three-year aged doubanjiang in a deep purplish brown.
Origin and History of Doubanjiang
Information about the origins of Pixian Doubanjiang were taken from the acclaimed cookbook titled “The Food of Sichuan”. Legend has it that after the fall of the Ming dynasty a Fujianese immigrant traveling to Sichuan brought fava beans that grew moldy in the damp conditions. The beans were allowed to sun dry and were then mixed with chilis and eaten.
The taste was so good that the beans and chilis began to purposely be fermented together and were developed into what we know as Pixian doubanjiang. The Sichuan immigrant’s descendants built the Shaofenghe and Yifenghe doubanjiang factories in Pixian, both under the Pixian Douban Company that continue to produce Pixian douban today.
How It Tastes
Doubanjiang is more flavorful than spicy, which we describe as fragrantly spicy. It is savory with a deep umami (xiān wèi 鲜味) flavor. One-year doubanjiang has a bright fresh flavor compared to three-year doubanjiang that has almost a cocoa fragrance and a deeper rounder flavored.
When added to dishes such as homestyle tofu. Three-year aged doubanjiang provides layer after layer of complexity that is hard to describe in words. We recommend that everyone buy both one-year and three-year aged versions and experiment with using them in different dishes.
The final flavor of each brand of doubanjiang is influenced by several factors, including where the raw ingredients are grown, the fermentation approach (traditional clay jars vs. modern factory), the process of manufacturers, and the fermentation period.
Since Pixian doubanjiang is a protected geographical indication (PGI) product we recommend that you only buy Pixian douban so you can ensure you are buying the best quality and most authentic product.
How Doubanjiang is Used in Cooking
There are no limits on where you can use doubanjiang – you are only limited by your imagination! Traditionally it is used in dishes like mapo tofu, hot pot, homestyle tofu, eggplant with garlic sauce, and braised dishes, among many others. In Sichuan it is used in a large proportion of dishes.
We foremost use it in traditional Chinese dishes, but we also have fun finding new uses for it. We made a flavorful vegan doubanjiang aioli that we used to top our tofu tacos with electric Sichuan spices.
Interestingly, we read in the Guardian that Fuchsia Dunlop’s (author of The Food of Sichuan) father uses it in his shepherd’s pie. We are all for it and want to spread the word about Sichuan ingredients, such as Sichuan peppercorns, so that chefs and cooks globally can discover their magic.
Whether we use one-year aged or three-year aged depends on the dish we are cooking (and our mood). We like to use the three-year aged in homestyle tofu and in our mapo tofu we use a mix of one and three-year aged.
One thing to remember when using doubanjiang is that it has high salt content since it’s a naturally fermented product. Because of this, you usually will not need to add extra salt to dishes that use doubanjiang. At the least ensure you taste the dish before adding extra salt.
Where to Buy It
After telling you how great doubanjiang is, this is a super important aspect! Before the rise of online shopping and before we moved to a large metropolitan area, we had to buy whatever was available at our local Asian market. Many times these markets were small Vietnamese stores in Mobile, Alabama that carried a variety of different Asian grocery products. While we are extremely grateful to those small stores, we were not getting the best doubanjiang.
We recommend you only buy Pixian doubanjiang since this should ensure you get the most traditional, natural, and flavorful product that you can. Even in the Bay Area some of our Chinese markets do not always carry Pixian douban. They sometimes carry brands that use other added ingredients or that do not ferment their products long enough.
If we look hard enough though we can some Pixian douban. The picture below shows authentic Pixian douban that we found at our Bay Area Chinese grocery, although the package does not tell how long it was fermented.
Because we only want the best quality doubanjiang we have started buying ours from The Mala Market (no affiliation to us). Also, they have three-year aged douban which we can’t find in local stores. They are a mother daughter business that imports directly from Sichuan, and they personally visit the Pixian Douban Co. to ensure they are getting a quality product.
Besides The Mala Market, you can purchase doubanjiang on Amazon, but without knowing their supplier it is more difficult to know the quality of their product. If you decide to purchase on Amazon, make sure you look for products that say “Pixian Doubanjiang.” Also, try to find out how long it has been fermented (this may be next to impossible though).
Doubanjiang will last almost indefinitely due to its fermentation and salt content. After opening store in the refrigerator.
We hate to break it to you but there are no substitutions for doubanjiang. The good news is it is widely available online and can be purchased with ease!
Remember, experiment and have fun! You are only limited by your mind. Try doubanjiang and Sichuan pepper (the most electric spice on earth!) in traditional dishes such as mapo tofu and homestyle tofu, but also try creating new recipes with these revolutionary ingredients.