I had eaten doubanjiang (a Chinese fermented bean paste, pronounced “dough-bun-jang”) a hundred times without knowing what it was. It’s a key ingredient in mapo tofu (ground pork and tofu in a fiery sauce), Kung Pao chicken and other Sichuan dishes. Though the flavour — almost cheesy in its ripe blast of salty umami — is unmistakable, I couldn’t have picked it out of a lineup.
Then, in 2013, I was formally introduced to doubanjiang in a basement restaurant in Toronto’s Chinatown. I was interviewing the owner about how he made his signature dan dan noodles (a popular, fiery Sichuan dish, typically served in snack-sized portions). There were a lot of components involved, including labour-intensive handmade noodles and two separate sauces requiring many ingredients. One of which was a brown paste that was hard to place but immediately familiar. Only then did I realize I’d discovered the long-loved flavour that till then had been a mystery.
Since learning to make the dan dan noodle sauce and then mapo tofu, which I prepare with slow-roasted pork shoulder instead of ground meat, doubanjiang has begun sneaking its way into my cooking. There are some foods you buy because you need a teaspoon for a recipe but then never use the rest of the jar. But this fermented bean paste has become an essential part of my pantry, turning simple bowls of sautéed vegetables into complex and satisfying dishes, and I can’t believe I ever cooked without it.
9 Essential Tips For Making The Best Fried Rice EverDoubanjiang gets its distinctive taste from a lengthy fermentation process. Broad beans (also known as fava beans) hang out with salt and wheat flour for six months before fresh chilies are added, then allowed to ferment further. Cheaper versions are made in massive troughs. More expensive brands ferment in terra cotta crocks, stirred daily and aged up to eight years. The resulting paste is dark and coarse, with a pungent nose of burnt caramel and fried onions, slightly sour and bitter, with a heat hidden by its saltiness. It’s sometimes packaged with oil or additional spices.
There are many producers of doubanjiang, but the best is said to come from Pixian county, an urbanizing district of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, known for its spicy food and eponymous peppercorns.
Too salty to use as a garnish or as the sole flavour in a dish, doubanjiang needs to be wedded with other ingredients to work its magic. Adding a single tablespoon can be sufficient for a dish meant to serve four people. Fried in oil with garlic and/or ginger, and then mixed with rice or noodles, it is tremendous. But its effect is amplified by a brief mingling with other flavours.
Using it to add a kick to veggies is an easy place to begin incorporating doubanjiang into your food. I start by creating a simple sauce: Fry the paste in oil on a low heat, then add ginger, garlic, and thin with a bit of stock or wine, if needed. Sometimes I’ll use this sauce to cook broccoli, guy lan (Chinese broccoli), baby bok choy or Brussels sprouts, and finish the dish with peanuts and toasted sesame seeds. Or, I’ll mix the sauce with something heartier, like lima beans and cauliflower. It seeps wonderfully into eggplant. Once I made a little stew with white beans, tomatoes and snow pea leaves, the sweet tomato flesh beautifully balanced by the salty paste.
My first time buying doubanjiang was a bit of an adventure. At my local Chinese supermarket, almost no one speaks English. But it has whatever you’re looking for, so if you show the staff a photo on your phone, they’ll help you find it. The doubanjiang was tucked underneath a table display of plums and pears in brown paper packages, each bearing a red label and tied together with twine. At home, I opened the paper bundle of Pixian Douban, then the plastic bag containing the lumpy, dark brown paste that emitted a scent so familiar it was like reuniting with a long-lost relative.
You’ll find doubanjiang at any Chinese supermarket, and I’ve tried several brands. So far, JuanCheng is my favourite. If you can’t find it, choose one that only contains only these four key ingredients: broad beans, salt, wheat flour and chilies. It’s usually $6 or $7.
If you want to give fermented bean paste a try and can’t get to a Chinese grocer, Lee Chili Bean Sauce is sold at many supermarkets, or you can find a variety of doubanjiang brands on Amazon.
Sure, the best doubanjiang requires some effort to track down, but it’s well worth it. This is the kind of staple that lasts for a long time in the fridge, and once you have it in your kitchen, you’ll never be able to live without it.