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.

oldest Pixian doubanjiang factory in sichuan
I took this photo of the Shao Feng He factory in 2007, before it lost hundreds of crocks of douban in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The lids are kept on the crocks during rainy weather

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.

3 year doubanjiang in Pixian
I took this photo of various ages of Yi Feng He Hao baking in the sun in 2018, as we prepared to import some of this very douban to the U.S.

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 authorized importer.

example jar of lee kum lee chili bean sauce with too many extra ingredients, a doubanjiang NOT made in Sichuan
Pixian douban has only four ingredients; Lee Kum Kee’s version has too many to count
Pixian doubanjiang in glass jar with metal spoon scooping some
The real deal is dark and thick and redolent of chilies and fermentation. A pure concentration of spicy, natural umami

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.)

About Taylor Holliday

The Mala Market all began when Taylor, a former journalist, created this blog as a place to document her adventures learning to cook Sichuan food for Fongchong, her recently adopted 11-year-old daughter. They discovered through the years that the secret to making food that tastes like it would in China is using the same ingredients that are used in China. The mother-daughter team eventually began visiting Sichuan’s factories and farms together and, in 2016, opened The Mala Market, America’s source for Sichuan heritage brands and Chinese pantry essentials.

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  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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…) 🙂

    1. Alan,
      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.

  4. 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?

    1. 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.