Doubanjiang is one variety of salty brown pastes made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, salt, wheat flour, and some spices. It is a vital seasoning ingredient to cook lots of Chinese foods and is referred to as the soul of Sichuan cuisine.
This article is providing an essential guide to all kinds of doubanjiang at the standing point of Asian-American, including what to look for and what to avoid.
What Is Doubanjiang
Doubanjiang is one kind of salty and savory brown fermented bean pastes. Originating in Sichuan, doubanjiang is usually stir-fried in oil to flavor food, but rarely eaten directly as a condiment on table. It is an indispensable seasoning ingredient for many famous Sichuan dishes such as Mapo Tofu, Shuizhu Beef, Twice-cooked Pork, etc. It is also often added in small amount to jazz up a simple dish like fried rice or noodles.
The term of doubanjiang in Madarin Chinese is used differently in different parts of China. In Sichuan, doubanjiang (豆瓣酱) is a reddish brown salty paste fermented from broad beans and fresh chili peppers, but it is rarely called spicy doubanjiang (辣豆瓣酱) as it does else where. In Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southern China, however, doubanjiang means kinds of fermented soybean pastes that sometimes have chili and sometimes do not, called as doubanjiang (豆瓣酱) and spicy doubanjiang (辣豆瓣酱) correspondingly. There is no any problem for local people to know what doubanjiang exactly means locally. Once beyond the local regions, however, doubanjiang becomes a most confusing term. It means broad bean paste as well as soybean paste. Given a few doubanjiangs on the Asian store shelves, it is confusing to choose a right one for a recipe.
The term of doubanjiang is translated into English differently. Fuchsia Dunlop translates it as chili bean paste in her English Sichuan cookbook "Land of Plenty". Cooking sauce manufacturers and foodie writers also translate it as (chili) broad bean paste, (chili) bean paste, (chili) soybean paste, (chili) bean sauce, hot bean sauce, and so on, while bean paste and bean sauce are so generic that they represent countless types of fermented bean pastes, including soybean paste, sweet bean paste, black bean paste, etc. When a recipe calls for bean paste or chili bean paste, it is often unclear which bean paste it really means.
Because of those confusions, most doubanjiangs available in Asian stores are collected and illustrated in this article for clarification of what is doubanjiang and for the sake of shopping reference.
Why Use Doubanjiang
The large amount of free amino acids released from the protein content of cooked beans during fermentation process, combined with the large amount of salt, provides a highly umami flavoring source which adds deep complexities to food it touches. The umami taste is the number one reason why fermented beans and only the beans which have been fermented are used to make seasoning pastes and sauces directly and indirectly. The savoriness of fermented beans is practically synonymous with Asian cooking, and doubanjiang is one of them.
It is the stir-frying in oil that imparts doubanjiang's red brown color and rich complex umami flavor to food it touches.
Doubanjiang makes about half Sichuan foods full of authentic flavors with its unique seasoning texture. Because of doubanjiang's wide use, the room for soy sauce is very limited in Sichuan cooking. Not like Cantonese counterpart, most Sichuan dishes do not use watery soy sauce at all. Don't be scared of not using soy sauce if the recipe does not call for it.
Sichuan doubanjiang is fermented from broad beans and fresh chili peppers. Per Baidu encyclopedia, one of the three best Sichuan doubanjiangs is Pixian doubanjiang which is named after the town of Pixian in Sichuan province of China. Pixian doubanjiang is fermented from only four basic ingredients of broad beans, fresh chili peppers, wheat flour and salt under Pixian's sepcial production environment. It has whole pieces of broad beans and large shreds of chili peppers remained in the finished product, making its texture rather coarse. Once stir-fried in oil, Pixian doubanjiang imparts its red brownish color and deep complex umami flavor to food it touches, making itself the soul of Sichuan cooking.
The rest of this section is splited to The Unrivaled Guide to Pixian Douban.
Sichuan doubanjiang is not all made in Pixian. Actually, two of the three best are produced in other places (but not available in the United States yet). The authentic list above found in Asian groceries are made in Sichuan, but not in Pixian. Some of them are even better though.
The first three bottles of Youjoy brand are made in Chengdu. They are definitely better than Pixan, but usually expired on the shelves of Asian stores here (when I took it every time). The Chinese names of the three bottles actually mean aged doubanjiang, doubanjiang with baby shrimps, and doubanjiang with chili oil, whille the English translation on labels means chili paste, or there is no English at all.
The center bottle is made by a well-known hotpot restaurant chain Haidilao in Sichuan. It would be the best to season your hotpot at home.
The next two jars are made by a big brand in Zigong which contributes to one of the three major flavor types of Sichuan cuisine.
The last jar is from a big sauce maker in Chongqing and thus has somewhat taste of Chongqing flavor, part of Sichuan cuisine.
One variety of doubanjiang found in the US market is made in Kangshan (冈山) city of Taiwan, where the original flavor was established by a soldier from Sichuan of China in 1950. Kangshan doubanjiang is majorly made from fermented soybeans and usually has both spicy and nonspicy versions, which means an opportunity to cook "non-spicy mapo tofu".
The Ming Teh brand (blue-yellow jars) is recognized as the very first Chili Master who created the original flavor of Taiwan style doubanjiang by The Chronicle of Kangshan since 1986. Ming Teh not only offers spicy, non-spicy and sweetened versions of soybean doubanjiang, but also makes a broad bean version named Broad Bean Paste with Chili.
Both Ming Teh (明德) and Har Har (哈哈) brands are widely used for Taiwan-style cooking in America. They are passable substitutes for their Sichuan-made counterpart, especially Ming Teh Broad Bean Paste with Chili.
This list of fermented soybean pastes with or without the addition of chilies are also called doubanjiang in Madarin Chinese. They are all made in Taiwan and are easy to find in Asian stores. These doubanjiang can be eatern directly to flavor rice or noodles.
The first two Szechuan bean sauces are terrific and are thought of as authentic Sichuan doubanjiang by lot of Asian-Americans, including some from mainland China.
Given the fact that Taiwanese cuisine itself is often associated with influences from Sichuan cuisine and Jiangshu cuisine, its doubanjiang often has sugar and sesame oil in its ingredient list. If a Taiwan-style recipe calls for bean sauce, it means doubanjiang made in Taiwan.
Cantonese-style doubanjiang is made from fermented soybeans with or without chili peppers added. Lee Kum Kee and Amoy are Hong Kong brands, popular in oversea Chinese communities. These Cantonese-style doubanjiang can be easily found in Asian stores, but none of them is suitable for authentic Sichuanese recipes, even though Lee Kum Kee's Chili Bean Paste is recommended to substitute Sichuan doubanjiang by Fuschia Dunlop in her Sichuan cookbook . The middle green box goes pretty popular to adapt Sichuan recipes into Cantonese style.
Indeed doubanjiang is rarely used in Cantonese cuisine. If a Cantonese recipe calls for bean sauce, it most possibly means black bean sauce or hoisin sauce, but not doubanjiang if not specified.
All Union Food doubanjiangs are made in California from basic ingredients of broad beans, soy beans, wheat flour and salt without extra additives. The style has some footprint inherited from Kangshan doubanjiang of Taiwan. There is one version made from broad beans with chili pepper, but its taste is less assertive than Ming Teh of Taiwan.
Independent of quality, local tastes and ingredients influence the taste.
Which Doubanjiang to Buy
Most types and brands of doubanjiang available in the United States have been collected and listed above. They vary widely in making location, ingredients, saltiness, sweetness, and spiciness. It is recommended to buy from this list or buy something which at least have two Chinese characters "豆瓣" (douban) in the product names no matter what the English translates are. There is no standard labeling on bean paste, and thus check the package ingredients to avoid confusion.
If your constant cooking is Sichuan style or the similar, or you want to try authentic Sichuan cooking, Sichuan doubanjiang is the real kick. The most popular is Pixian doubanjuang from which you may choose a few different styles. See How to Buy Pixian Douban to get a right one. Taiwan-made Kangshan doubanjiang is a great substitute, otherwise Cantonese Lee Kum Kee doubanjiang is a decent replacement.
If your most cooks are Cantonese style and spicy taste is not allowed, any nonspicy doubanjiang made inTaiwan, China and America will fit the need if you do not have preference so far. Sichuan doubanjiang does not do any better for nonspicy eaters. Substitution is Cantonese style black bean sauces which are discusssed else where in this website. This is a decent way to cater Sichuan recipes to nonspicy Cantonese eaters.
If food safety is your major concern, American doubanjiang has a clean and simple ingredient list and a trust production location.
Anything that is not lised here or does not have Chinese characters "豆瓣" (douban) in the product names should be avoided. Sriracha, chili paste, black bean paste and hoisin sauce cannot be used to substitute doubanjiang.
How to Use Doubanjiang
Oil and doubanjiang are all one needs to create an impressive Sichuan dish with a deep complex flavor. To know how to cook with doubanjiang, you'd better know what taste it is supposed to be. Tast of Pixian Douban has summarized the way of how to make fried rice for a simple taste test. Other types of doubanjiang should be used in a similar way:
- If the fried rice tastes like the raw beany taste of doubanjiang, it means the paste does not stir fry long enough to completely impart its flavor out into the rice.
- The taste of whole pieces of broad beans in the fried rice is crunchy, savory, salty, and completely different from the taste and mouthfeel of the fried rice. That is why doubanjiang should be miced not only to avoid whole pieces to appear in final dishes but also to get more falvor out of them into food.
- Stir-frying doubanjiang should keep under medium heat such that the paste does not get burned before its flavors are imparted out completely.
- Stir-frying doubanjiang until it is caramelized gives another deep, naturally sweet dimension that cannot be achieved by adding sugar.
- A little sugar is the Chinese way of reducing saltiness if the fried rice is too salty.
Each brand has its own level of saltiness and spiciness. Gradually add to taste like with any other potentially salty ingredient and then gauge the usage.
The use of doubanjiang should not be limited to Sichuan cuisine. Try incorporating it into burgers, various American chilis and Mexican recipes, or replacing soy sauce in stir-fry dishes or substituting glazing sauce in barbecue games.
If you are not sure where to begin with doubanjiang, try to make our simple doubanjiang fried rice more delicious by adding more ingredients of meat, vegetable and eggs. Mapo tufo and twice-cooked pork are the well-known encouraging startpoint.