If Sichuan pepper and chili pepper are the heart of Sichuan cooking, then douban jiang is the soul. The secret weapon in dishes such as twice-cooked pork and mapo doufu, douban is little known outside China—and the authentic version is little known outside Sichuan. Chinese cuisines have various fermented bean pastes/sauces, usually made with yellow or black soy beans. But Sichuan’s version is made with fava beans, also known as broad beans, mixed with fresh red chili peppers and salt and fermented from one to eight years.
On one of our culinary adventures, Lotus Culinary Travel visits Pixian County, the home of the best douban jiang, where we tour the original artisan douban workshop, learning the details of how the famed paste is made from the Brothers Chen, descendants of the family that created it some 300 years ago. Some of its secrets: Aged in 3-foot-tall earthen crocks, it’s hand-stirred every single day, and on good-weather days the lid is removed and the paste is left open to the elements, soaking up the Sichuan sun and dew that contribute to its incomparable flavor.
I took the photo above in 2007, before the Chens lost hundreds of crocks of aging douban in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. But their courtyard is still an amazing sight.
Buying tip: Though it takes a bit of looking, you can often find Sichuan-made chili bean paste in plastic packets at Asian markets in the West. Even if the writing is in Chinese, it will often include the words Pixian Dou Ban, and you can check the ingredient list, making sure it lists broad beans (as opposed to soy beans). Refrigerate in a jar after opening and it will last for months, so it’s well worth the search.
When I can’t find Pixian douban in my local Chinese market, I order it online at Posharp, which has much better prices than those sellers found sometimes at Amazon. Most other bean sauces are not acceptable substitutes for douban jiang, but Guangdong’s Lee Kum Kee makes a version called Chili Bean Sauce using both broad beans and soy beans that is widely available and good—though quite different from the original.