This post took a long time in the coming – I went to the workshop where they make this quintessential Sichuan product way back in May, but at the time had all sorts of website problems and so couldn’t post. Then, when I’d finally sorted out the lovely new site that you see before you, I’d been recruited to write an article about doubanjiang for Chengdoo Citylife Magazine as the first installment of my new column, so I had to wait until that came out before posting on my blog.
So, here it is, with a few minor changes for those living outside China. Enjoy!
Doubanjiang, or in English, chilli bean paste, is one of the most essential foodstuffs in the Sichuanese kitchen. It is a vital ingredient in many of the most famous dishes of the region – Mapo Tofu, Shuizhu Beef, Twice-cooked Pork – and it is also often added in small quantities to jazz up a simple dish like fried rice or noodles.
The literal meaning of doubanjiang, ‘beans mixed into sauce’, hints at one of its two main ingredients: hu dou, the fava or broad bean. Legend has it that these beans were brought to Sichuan by immigrants from the central plains of China after the population of Chengdu was decimated at the end of the Ming Dynasty. By the time they had finished their long journey, it is said, the beans had started to go off in the humid new climate; not wanting to waste what they had brought, the immigrants mixed their beans with local chillies, thereby inadvertently creating what we now know as doubanjiang.
The traditional ingredients in doubanjiang are minimal – fresh chillies, beans, salt and wheat flour. The method for producing it is similarly simple, but makes up in length for what it lacks in complexity. First, fresh chillies are pulverised and left to ferment in large earthen-ware containers; after 5 months the beans and other ingredients are added, and then the whole lot is left to ferment for another several months.
In total, the process of making doubanjiang should take at least a year, although nowadays less scrupulous producers add various extra ingredients – soy sauce, MSG and others – to enhance the flavour and cut down on the fermenting time.
The real, slow-baked deal, however, can be found just outside Chengdu in Pixian, where the Zhao Feng He company has been producing doubanjiang using only traditional methods since 1666. In their courtyard, thousands of earthen-ware pots are neatly arranged according to their level in the fermentation process. The doubanjiang here is mixed everyday, the lids of the pots taken off in good weather, and the product is left to ferment for at least two years before being sold to private customers only. Various ages of doubanjiang are available at Zhao Feng He, including an eight year-old, limited vintage – the finest and most unadulterated doubanjiang in China.
It’s also probably the most expensive doubanjiang in China, so unless you’re a total Sichuan food obsessive I recommend getting something a bit less pricy. In China, you can buy doubanjiang loose from the market, but the packaged versions are, I think, better quality. Various companies advertise their product as real Pixian doubanjiang; check that the ingredients list has no more than five ingredients to be sure you’re getting the good stuff. In Britain and the US, Lee Kum Kee’s chilli bean sauce is a good imitation and available at most oriental shops.
Finally, note that doubanjiang should be used sparingly – it can be almost overwhelmingly pungent if added with a heavy hand.
Fish-Fragrant Eggplant (Yu Xiang Qiezi)
2 medium-sized eggplants
Vegetable or peanut oil
1 teaspoon of sesame oil
1 ½ tablespoons of doubanjiang
3 teaspoons of freshly chopped ginger
3 teaspoons of freshly chopped garlic
150 ml of water
1 ½ teaspoons of sugar
1 teaspoon of light soy sauce
2 teaspoons of black vinegar
4 spring onions, sliced into 3cm chunks
1 teaspoon of cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon of water
- Remove either end of the eggplants, cut into 4 quarters and then slice each quarter length ways into 3 or 4 chucks.
- In a wok, heat up about 3 tablespoons of oil. Add the eggplants when hot, and stir-fry until almost done (about 3-5 minutes). Place into a serving bowl.
- Wash the wok if necessary, and then heat up another 1-2 tablespoons of oil. Add the doubanjiang and stir-fry for about 20 seconds until the oil is red and fragrant; add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir-fry for about another 30 seconds. Take care not to burn the flavourings – turn down the heat if necessary.
- Add the water, sugar, soy sauce and mix well.
- Once the liquid is boiling return the eggplants to the wok and let them simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavours.
- Now add the vinegar, spring onions and salt, and cook until the onions are soft. Add the starch and water mixture and stir to thicken the sauce.
- Finally, turn off the heat, stir in the sesame oil and serve.