If you can’t get enough of the umami-rich, lip-tingling delights of Sichuan cuisine, it’s likely that some of your favourite dishes owe their flavour to a fermented bean paste called doubanjiang (豆瓣酱). Often referred to as the soul of Sichuan cooking, doubanjiang is a key ingredient in many Sichuan favourites, including mapo tofu, shuizhu beef, and huoguo, or Sichuan hotpot. It can be used as a condiment, a seasoning, or as a base for making sauces.
Although the spicy Sichuan varieties of doubanjiang are probably best known, many regions of China have their own versions, some of which are not spicy at all. In some areas, Sichuan doubanjiang is known as la-doubanjiang (辣豆瓣醬), or ‘hot doubanjiang’, to distinguish it from non-spicy local versions.
You can buy doubanjiang from your local Asian supermarket.
The English labelling can sometimes be a little confusing, however, so if you need spicy la-doubanjiang for a Sichuan recipe, look for the ‘辣’ or ‘la’ character, meaning ‘hot’. The paste should also have a fiery red colour from the inclusion of chilli peppers.
Ingredients and taste
Doubanjiang is made from fermented broad bean or soybean paste, with salt and flour, and, in spicy versions, chilli peppers. The longer it is left to ferment, the better quality it is considered to be, with the very best (and consequently most expensive) doubanjiang fermented for up to 3 years.
The flavour of doubanjiang is intensely umami-rich, with a touch of sweetness. It is also quite salty, which is something to bear in mind when adding seasoning, especially salt or soy sauce. In fact, the Sichuan love of doubanjiang means that soy sauce is far less common in Sichuan cuisine than other Chinese dishes. Spicy varieties of doubanjiang also have plenty of chilli heat, which contributes to the famous ‘mala’, or ‘numbing and hot’ quality of Sichuan food.
What is Pixian doubanjiang?
Pixian doubanjiang (郫县豆瓣酱)is one of the more popular varieties of spicy Sichuan doubanjiang, and the only variety that is readily available in the United States, so if you have some spicy doubanjiang, it is most likely of the Pixian variety. It originates from Sichuan’s Pidu district, formerly known as Pixian, from which it takes its name.
Made from fermented broad beans, chilli peppers, wheat flour and salt, Pixian doubanjiang has a reddish-brown colour and a coarse, chunky texture, with large pieces of bean and chilli remaining in the paste. It is typically fried in a little oil before adding to other ingredients, releasing all those salty, umami flavours, and turning the oil a deep fiery red.
Doubanjiang vs other pastes
Doubanjiang is not the only fermented bean paste in Asian cuisine. In fact there are quite a few. Find out how to tell the difference between these deliciously savoury pastes with our guide to some of the most popular.
Gochujang (고추장): a Korean cousin of doubanjiang, gochujang is made with soybeans and red pepper powder, and has a sweeter, tangier flavour, as well as being a little milder and less salty. Gochujang also has a much smoother consistency, while doubanjiang is rough and chunky.
Toban Djan (辣豆瓣醬): technically a type of doubanjiang, toban djan is a moderately spicy dupe of Sichuan doubanjiang, made in the Canton province. It is described using the same Chinese characters as spicy doubanjiang, and is actually a different English pronunciation of the same word, but the Cantonese paste is noticeably less spicy, so it is worth noting the distinction.
Doenjang (된장): another Korean soybean paste, doenjang is made from soybean and brine only, and is traditionally made into a brick, known as meju. It is less salty than doubanjiang, and is never spicy, with a flavour that is sometimes compared to Japanese miso.
In Sichuan, many housewives make their own version of doubanjiang, which differs slightly from the famous Pixian variety. If you would like to make your own traditional version of doubanjiang, or if you’re just curious to learn more about the process, take a look at this detailed step-by-step doubanjiang recipe from China Sichuan Food.
Recipes with doubanjiang
Whether you use your own homemade doubanjiang, or you bought some from your local Asian market, these tasty recipes are a great way to try out those delicious flavours.
Sichuan sauce for stir fry: this spicy Sichuan sauce recipe from The Mala Market is the perfect partner for chicken or beef. With hot Pixian doubanjiang, Sichuan chilis and peppercorns, it is the perfect example of that distinctively Sichuan, spicy, numbing, tingling sensation known as ‘mala’.
Fish fragrant eggplant: based on Fuchsia’s Dunlop’s recipe from the award-winning Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, this aromatic eggplant recipe is made in the popular Sichuan ‘yu xiang’ or ‘fish fragrant’ style, which is so-named because it uses the seasonings used in traditional fish cookery.
If you can’t get hold of doubanjiang, Thai chilli sauce sambal oelek has a similar spicy flavour, and you could also try gochujang or toban djan mixed with red chilli flakes to increase the spiciness. In a pinch, you could use a non-spicy paste like black bean paste, doenjang or miso, mixed with an equal amount of red chilli flakes.
How to store
Doubanjiang should be stored in the refrigerator after opening, where it will keep for up to a year. Often there will be a ‘best before’ date on the packaging, so you’ll know how long you have to eat it. If your doubanjiang is in a resealable jar or tub, you can keep it in the original packaging, but if it is in a pouch it should be transferred to a clean, airtight container and labelled with the date you opened it, as well as the ‘best before’ date from the packaging.