Sourcing Pixian Doubanjiang (Fermented Chili Bean Paste, 豆瓣酱)
Pixian Doubanjiang: The Soul of Sichuan Cuisine
If Sichuan pepper and chili pepper are the heart of Sichuan cuisine, then doubanjiang is the soul. The secret weapon in twice-cooked pork, mapo doufu, mala hot pot and scores of other Sichuan dishes, douban is little known outside China—and the authentic version is little known outside Sichuan.
Asian cuisines have various fermented bean pastes/sauces, usually made with yellow or black soy beans. But Sichuan’s version, which comes from the county of Pixian, is made with dried fava beans, also known as broad beans, mixed with fresh red erjingtiao chili peppers, salt and a bit of wheat flour and fermented from one to eight years. The broad beans have a very different taste than soy beans, making the other Chinese bean pastes a poor substitute.
A young douban will be bright red and chunky, while an aged one will be darker, the beans more broken down. The oldest ones are a deep, dark purple-brown with intense spice and salt notes amid layers of umami.
In the traditional method of making Pixian doubanjiang, the broad beans are left to ferment for several months in 3-foot-tall earthenware crocks, then the Sichuan-grown erjingtiao chilies, which have been fermenting separately, are added and the mixture is further fermented for at least a year in total. The crocks are individually 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.
A migrant named Chen Yi is credited with inventing this process by accident, when he was moving from Fujian Province to Sichuan with a load of broad beans. They spoiled along the way; he attempted to hide the spoilage with chili peppers; and the rest is history. Apocryphal or not, descendants of Chen still own Shao Feng He, a douban factory founded in 1666.
I first visited Shao Feng He in 2007, and the combination of the sight of the hundreds of crocks and the taste of the aging douban was a transforming experience for me—one of the reasons I have returned to Sichuan every year since. A few months later, the 2008 earthquake destroyed hundreds of the Chens’ crocks, but Shao Feng He recovered and continues to produce douban the traditional way, albeit in relatively small amounts mostly for private customers. It does not export its products.
Sichuan Pixian Douban Co., which has a founding date of 1688, also traces its roots to Chen Yi and, more specifically, to his descendent Chen Shouxin, whose douban was branded Yi Feng He Hao in 1853. So it seems that several branches and generations of the Chen family got into the douban business.
In 1953, after the Communist Revolution, the Pixian douban industry was collectivized and several brands came together into the government-run Sichuan Province Pixian Douban Factory, which is now known as Sichuan Pixian Douban Co. It is still a state-run enterprise, though since the economic reform and opening of the 1980s, many private douban companies have been started in Pixian—including the largest global seller of douban, Sichuan Dandan Pixian Bean Paste Group Co., the brand with a woman on the packaging (a famous actress in China).
Both Shao Feng He and Yi Feng He Hao have the designation of China Time-Honored Brand, meaning they have literally stood the test of time. Although there are some 70 companies making doubanjiang in Pixian nowadays, I believe these to be the only two companies that market a chili bean paste made entirely by hand in the traditional way.
In more recent times, the production has been slightly—and only slightly—modified for the modern era of manufacturing. The bulk of Pixian doubanjiang is now aged in long cement troughs and stirred by a machine that moves down each aisle, its automated arms turning over the douban so that each bit gets exposed to air. Rows upon rows of these troughs spread out into the distance. Their roof is a mesh netting, which keeps out the bugs and such, and there is a solid retractable roof for when it rains.
Sichuan Pixian Douban Co. uses this process for its Juan Cheng Pai, the most popular brand of douban in Sichuan. The first-grade Juan Cheng Pai is aged for one year. There is also a younger version of the brand, a hong (red) douban, and a version with added oil, a hongyou (red oil) douban, though you rarely see them in the U.S.
The crocks are only for the longer-aged douban, and are kept in a separate location, on a rooftop. Their contents get a daily stir by hand and they are entirely open to the elements, because they have their own human handlers who keep a close eye on them, rushing out to replace their lids should they be threatened by rain.
While the process has barely changed in hundreds of years, food safety standards are strictly followed, with Sichuan Pixian Douban Co.’s douban meeting international safety standards including FDA, HACCP, ISO 9001 and halal. The company grows all its own beans and chilies, maintaining complete control over the entire process, and its doubans are certified as Green Food by the agency in China that regulates organic and non-chemical food production.
On top of that, Pixian doubanjiang is a protected geographic indication and is one of the few food products in China whose craftsmanship qualifies as national intangible cultural heritage; all brands are strictly regulated by the Pixian Food Industry Association.
After more than a decade of douban obsession, I visited Sichuan Pixian Douban Co. in 2018 with my daughter, Fongchong, to begin the process of importing Yi Feng He Hao to the U.S. It’s hard to fathom why no one else has done so, but it probably has to do with the price it commands after three years of babysitting. Both large importers and consumers still expect Chinese ingredients and food to be cheap. But that is slowly changing, and we believe that American consumers are willing to pay a fair price for a top-quality Chinese product.
At The Mala Market, we sell both the 1-year Juan Cheng Pai and the 3-year Yi Feng He Hao, both packaged specifically for us immediately before export. You can also find Juan Cheng Pai in most Chinese supermarkets, just be sure to check both the expiration date and the importer. If the importer is not stated, then pass that package up, as that means it was exported not by the manufacturer but illegally by a third party and cannot be guaranteed authentic. (This happens more than you would think!)
As for the Yi Feng He Hao, The Mala Market is currently the exclusive importer.
Cooking with douban
Doubanjiang tends to be pretty chunky, with some large bits of fava bean and chilies that have not entirely broken down in the fermentation process. Many cooks will run a knife through the douban before using it, mincing it into a smoother paste. Alternatively, you can run the whole batch through a food processor when you first get it. I personally don’t bother with that, since a larger piece here or there just reminds me of exactly what I’m eating and how it was made. What I am careful about is how much doubanjiang I use in a recipe. It can be quite salty, so when experimenting with it, it pays to add a bit at a time and taste as you go.
As a general rule, use one tablespoon of doubanjiang in a stir-fry for a hint of umami-spice; two tablespoons in dishes that are meant to taste of douban, such as mapo doufu and twice-cooked pork; and more than that for the high-octane Sichuan dishes like shuizhu (water-boiled) fish or beef and mala hotpot.
Kept in the refrigerator, chili bean paste will last indefinitely, and you can have the soul of Sichuan food on hand at all times.
(Please do not borrow photos without permission or text without attribution.)
I spent 5 years walking through the countryside of Pixian doing an archaeological survey project, and frequently came across the makers of douban jiang when I met them in the villages and fields. Other things that add to the flavor of the sauce are– it is transported from processor to the packaging factory in woven bamboo containers that are lined with old newspapers that are glued to the insides of the containers with a glue that contains ox blood (I asked the basket makers why the glue was red in color). After the baskets are lined, but before they are filled with the paste, they are piled up 15 or 20 high into a tall cylinder and a fire is lit in the center of the cylinder to dry them by smoking. I am not sure if there is a particular fuel used for the fire, I think it might just have been the briquettes made from coal dust that one finds firing stoves all over the countryside, but I am not sure.
Oh my gosh, that’s fascinating! I can’t think of an ingredient anywhere with a more interesting story. Is this newspaper/ox blood/smoking procedure done to affect the taste or as a preservative of some kind? Is the procedure done only by small producers making douban jiang for the home or village, or is it also done by the large producers like the ones I mention here? Crazy story! Thanks so much for sharing.
I think the newspaper/ox blood procedure is done simply to make the woven bamboo baskets less porous. They are not tightly woven at all and the paste would seep through them without the lining. I think the oxblood is added to wheat paste for flavor, but how they came up with adding it to the paste is a mystery to me, and I didn’t think to ask. In other situations, like putting up posters or sealing over cracks with paper, the wheat paste used is just flour and water, no blood added. The smoking is to dry out and shrink up the bamboo strips making up the basket to make the container less leaky. I think its probably a procedure that is done by the smaller, more traditional manufacturers, I never got to see the large industrial scale ones that you have photos of, although the hotel that we used to live in was around the corner from the Pixian Douban Jiang Research Institute. Was that where you saw the large scale manufacturing?
That makes sense. Though it seems like it would be a lot easier to just buy some plastic containers. 🙂 I guess bamboo is cheaper. I have never seen the Douban Jiang Institute! We visit both the oldest commercial producer and the largest one in Pixian. And I’ve seen farmers making their own douban for family use. It would be cool to visit a smaller manufacturer too. Thanks for the interesting info, Gwen!
When I visited the Posharp website I found out that they are located in Quincy, Massachusetts, only an hour’s drive away, and that they have a brick-and-mortar Chinese supermarket as well as the online business. I drove there last Saturday. I was able to get Pixian douban jiang, sweet wheat paste, hot chili flakes from Sichuan, and both red and green Sichuan peppercorns (vacuum packed, and I’m sure a lot fresher than what I’m used to). And shaoxing wine that was not adulterated with salt. Now I’m ready to make some chao larou.
I just bought a bag. Tastes good, although surprisingly salty. After all the salt is there for fermentation purposes, to preserve the mixture. The information here is interesting. Anyone wonders if the vats shown here are ever closed ? I mean, all that time exposed to whatever is in the air ? I presume they are closed but then, the picture shows a lot of them opened. If they are closed, they’d open them one by one to stir the mixture, no ?
Yes, douban is salty. I always recommend starting with a bit and adding more if you need it. And adding no additional salt! Pixian is far enough outside Chengdu that the air quality is pretty good, but the vats are definitely closed in bad weather. The good stuff in crocks is hand-stirred every day, but I’m not sure about the big vats. In any case, they watch it closely. Hope you enjoy your douban jiang!
For those in Sydney, Australia….
I just picked up a 454g pouch of the Sichuan Pixian Douban Co product, shown the in lower centre article photo, in the OK Chinese Supermarket on Forest Rd in Hurstville for only a few dollars.
They also stock prickly oil and green Sichuan peppercorns too. What a find!!
Thanks for sharing. I love knowing you can find these products everywhere.
Be definitely heading over there sometime soon
Had a great Mapo doufu in Melbourne recently at Ricky & Pinky
Is it possible to visit Shao Feng He?
It’s not possible anymore without some connections…Let me know if you need to visit for professional reasons, and I’ll point you in the right direction.
Thanks Taylor. Yes, we’d like to visit on September 28 with some italian and american food journalist and cooks. Regards. Massimo
thanks for sharing your love of sichuan cuisine. As a taiwanese-american that’s obsessed with spicy food, reading your blog is a joy. Totally agree with you about Lee Kum Kee doubanjiang, it’s not good. Once I finish my current supply of doubanjiang, I’m definitely going to order some pixian doubanjiang. Thanks!
Thanks, Peter! Really appreciate the kind words for my labor of love.
I live in the wrong country to buy from you but thank you for a terrifically interesting post. Really expanded my understanding of the food and made me interested to seek out some of the more authentic and premium examples. Started at Lee Kum Kee and now expanding the repertoire. Thank you and all the best.
Thank you, Andrew! Just look for a douban made in Pixian and you should be good to go.
Greetings and belated but well deserved congratulations Taylor on all you’ve done to go from the Mala Project to the outstanding Mala Market! Just terrific information & writing, as well as first quality authentic products for true lovers of Sichuan cuisine. Cannot believe it has been a couple of years ( 😮 ) since my last posting here, am hoping to finish an email that I began several days ago but had to reach out now to offer sincere kudos & thanks for the excellent efforts on your and Fong Chong’s part, clearly a labor of love on all levels. Bravo to you both! (to be continued…) 🙂
Thank you for this incredibly kind and thoughtful note! We really appreciate the support and encouragement of our longtime readers who have stuck with us through this journey. And of course we love to hear that we are providing information and products that you want. Thank you for taking the time to let us know.
I have an unopened package that has an expiration date of 03/2020. I saw above that if refrigerated you can keep it forever. How do I know if it went bad?
I’m not sure if you bought the douban from us or which type it is, but, in general, if the packaging is not bloated or leaking it should be ok. If it smells and looks good, it probably is good, though I would definitely refrigerate it. The red-oil douban in the plastic jar may not last as long.