Your chuancai cupboard
Western foodie Jessie Levene breaks down Sichuan's infamous cuisine into its building blocks. This time she takes a look at the quintessential component (and quintessentially Sichuanese) douban paste, with which countless dishes have been made and for which at least one social-networking website has been named.
Douban jiang (豆瓣酱), or, in English, "chilli-bean paste," is one of the most essential foodstuffs in the Sichuanese kitchen. It is a vital ingredient in many of the most famous dishes of the region—Mapo Tofu, Shuizhu Beef, Twice-cooked Pork—and it is also often added in small quantities to jazz up a simple dish like fried rice or noodles.
The literal meaning of douban jiang, "beans mixed into sauce," hints at one of its two main ingredients: hudou—the fava or broad bean. Legend has it that these beans were brought to Sichuan by immigrants from the central plains of China after the population of Chengdu was decimated at the end of the Ming Dynasty. By the time they had finished their long journey, it is said, the beans had started to go off in the humid new climate; not wanting to waste what they had brought, the immigrants mixed their beans with local chilli peppers, thereby inadvertently creating what we now know as douban jiang—often referred to as simply "douban."
The traditional ingredients in douban are minimal—fresh chillies, beans, salt, and wheat flour. The method for producing it is similarly simple, but makes up in length for what it lacks in complexity. First, fresh chillies are pulverised and left to ferment in large earthen-ware containers; after five months the chillies and other ingredients are added, and then the whole lot is left to ferment for another several months.
In total, the process of making doubanjiang should take at least a year, although nowadays less scrupulous producers add various extra ingredients such as soy sauce and MSG to enhance the flavor and cut down on the fermenting time.
The real, slow-baked deal, however, can be found just outside Chengdu in Pixian, where Zhao Feng He (兆丰和) has been producing doubanjiang using traditional methods since 1666. In the courtyard, over 5,000 earthenware pots are neatly arranged according to their stage in the fermentation process. The doubanjiang here is mixed every day, the lids of the pots removed during good weather, and the product left to ferment for at least two years before being sold exclusively to private customers. Various ages of doubanjiang are available at Zhao Feng He, including an eight-year-old, limited vintage, apparently the finest and most unadulterated doubanjiang in China.
It's also probably the most expensive doubanjiang in China, so unless you're a total Sichuan food obsessive, I recommend less pricy varieties. You can buy doubanjiang loose at open markets, and packaged versions cost as little as RMB3 for 200g. Various companies advertise their product as real Pixian doubanjiang; check that the package lists no more than five ingredients to be sure you're getting good stuff.
Finally, note that doubanjiang should be used sparingly—it can be overwhelmingly pungent if added with a heavy hand.
Douban Recipe: Fish-Fragrant Eggplant
Adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan Cookery
2 medium-sized eggplants
vegetable or peanut oil
1½ Tbsp doubanjiang
3 tsp freshly chopped ginger
3 tsp freshly chopped garlic
150 mL water
1½ tsp sugar
1 tsp light soy sauce
2 tsp black vinegar
4 spring onions, sliced into 3cm chunks
1 tsp starch (doufen) mixed with 1 Tbsp water
1 tsp sesame oil
1. Remove either end of the eggplants, cut into quarters, and slice each quarter lengthways into 3 or 4 chunks.
2. In a wok, heat up about 3 tablespoons of oil. When hot, add the eggplant pieces and stir-fry until almost done (about 3 to 5 minutes). Place into a serving bowl.
3. Wash the wok if necessary, and then heat up another 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the doubanjiang and stir-fry for about 20 seconds until the oil is red and fragrant; add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir-fry for another 30 seconds. Take care not to burn the flavourings. Turn down the heat if necessary.
4. Add the water, sugar, and soy sauce and mix well.
5. Once the liquid is boiling, return the eggplant pieces to the wok and let them simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavors.
6. Add the vinegar, spring onions, and salt, and cook until the onions are soft. Add the starch and water mixture and stir to thicken the sauce.
7. Turn off the heat, stir in the sesame oil, and serve.