Sourcing Tianmianjiang (Sweet Wheat Paste, 甜面酱)
Published May 17, 2014, Updated May 30, 2023
Tianmianjiang, or the Glory of Sichuan’s Fermented Sauces
This unassuming little ingredient is way more powerful than it lets on. Called sweet wheat paste or sweet soybean paste, 甜面酱 (tiánmiànjiàng) is yet another member of the family of fantastically tasty and useful Asian bean sauces. Don’t even get me started on the glory of fermented bean pastes… other than to say my pantry and fridge include four kinds of Chinese bean sauces (sweet bean, chili bean, yellow bean and hoisin) as well as two kinds of Korean and two kinds of Japanese. And that’s not even counting Chinese black bean sauce, which itself is not fermented but is made from fermented soybeans, or douchi.
Several regions of China make a sweet wheat or sweet bean paste. I’m not sure exactly why they taste so similar and are interchangeable, since one is made by fermenting wheat and one by fermenting soybeans. But they are. Perhaps because the sweet bean sauces usually include wheat as an ingredient as well, though the sweet wheat sauces normally do not include beans, just wheat flour, water and salt.
These sauces are high-umami without being too salty, or too sweet either. The Sichuan tianmianjiang is very savory but only mildly sweet. It is used less frequently than doubanjiang, or chili bean paste, in Sichuan cooking. Most notably the two are used together in twice-cooked pork. However, sweet bean paste can stand on its own as a stir-fry base and is often used to sauce pork, as in stir-fried pork slivers with fermented flour paste. Another of the Chengdu Challenges I’ll be tackling from The Cookbooks will be flour-paste-flavored pork feet. Though I will probably not tackle quick-fried duck tongues with fermented flour paste. Because where would I get duck tongues in America?
It’s fairly easy to find sweet bean paste and even Sichuan-made sweet wheat paste in Chinese markets in the U.S. Pictured above are two brands of Sichuan tianmianjiang. On the right is the Juan Cheng brand, made by the Sichuan Pixian Douban Co., which is famous for its doubanjiang, being the largest and most well known brand of chili bean paste in Sichuan. The company’s tianmianjiang is also particularly good (and we carry it, now in resealable glass jar form!). The other Sichuan brand pictured above is made by Chengdu Guo Niang Food Co. What I love about the Sichuan brands is that they often come in these little packets of 10 grams, or about two teaspoons, which is the perfect size for one stir-fry.
A Great Fermented Alternative: Sweet Soybean Paste
If I can’t get a wheat sauce made in Sichuan, I buy Cong Ban Lu Soybean Paste, made by the Shandong-based Shinho company. This company touts its green approach and uses non-GMO soybeans in its bean sauces. It also makes my favorite Beijing/Shangdong-style yellow soybean paste, used to make Beijing’s famed zhajiang noodles, but that’s a whole different subject (not to be mistaken for Chengdu zajiang noodles). It’s a bit confusing shopping for sweet soybean paste because the English translation on various kinds of bean sauces often just says soybean paste. It’s best to look at the ingredients, which should include only soybeans, wheat, salt and no other flavorings. Also, the paste should be very dark brown and smooth. (Whatever you do, don’t confuse it with red bean paste, which also may be translated as sweet bean paste but is totally different.)
Cong Ban Lu’s bean sauces come in distinctive plastic tubs or in refill packets. I also recommend the company’s hoisin sauce, which, like sweet bean sauce, is made from fermented soybeans and wheat flour but which also includes additional flavorings like sesame and sugar. It’s a great alternative to the ubiquitous Lee Kum Kee hoisin, whose No. 1 ingredient is sugar. Hoisin should not be substituted for sweet flour paste in Sichuan cooking, however, because of the additional ingredients.
(Note: You can find Juan Cheng brand tianmianjiang online at our shop. And as of February 2022, we also sell our own new-to-the-U.S. but famous Guangdong-brand hoisin (the homeland of hoisin) by Guangweiyuan. It contains tomato and red yeast rice for its unique, natural reddish brown flavoring—no food coloring. Thanks Steph and Chris at Chinese Cooking Demystified for the recommendation!)
But then again, we’re only following the rules for the Chengdu Challenge. Outside of the challenge feel free to combine any and all of the bean sauces. I do, and usually to tasty effect.