10 February 2023 · Consuming passions
Thomas DuBois is a Beijing-based historian who studies China’s immeasurably diverse food traditions. He is the author of a forthcoming book on the history of food in China . His Consuming Passion is doubanjiang which Wikipedia describes as “a hot and savoury Chinese bean paste made from fermented broad beans, chili peppers, soybeans, salt and flour”.
Not that long ago, buying food in China meant visiting a series of specialized markets—one for grain, another for fruit, and the one that I always found borderline magical: a shop just for pickles and sauces. Around the perimeter, big earthenware tubs held radish, cucumber, fish, seaweed or garlic, steeped in dark brown vinegar or packed in brewing lees. Sauces were sold right out of the tanzi, an egg-shaped fermenting vat, kept airtight by an overturned bowl that rested in a little moat of water. Archaeologists have found pots of this same ingenious design going back thousands of years.
Fermented sauces are the heart of cuisines across East Asia. Fish sauce and the impossibly pungent belacan shrimp paste in Southeast Asia, Korean gochujang, and Japanese miso. Each one is distinct. Even limiting ourselves to fermented soybeans there is still a dizzying diversity of styles, tastes and uses. Reducing this diversity to the one or two brands of bottled soy sauce on most supermarket shelves is like having the entire universe of cheese represented by a single block of bland mass-market cheddar.
The first time I tried to ferment doubanjiang bean paste, I opened the lid to find something so awful that I was content to simply sacrifice the tanzi rather than investigate further. But for centuries, Chinese families made their own. From the far north to the tropical south, every farmhouse would have its own tanzi of doubanjiang happily sunning in the courtyard.
The basic recipe for doubanjiang is simple and begins with leaving cooked soybeans out to develop a cake of mould. These beans become a starter for fermentation and a platform to create your own personal mix of flavours. Across much of southern China, beans come second to a massive pile of finely-minced red chillis, and spices like Sichuan peppercorn, ginger, and star anise. One thousand-year-old recipe that I recreated for my book packs layers of beans with large chunks of lotus root, pumpkin and eggplant. Over three months of curing, the vegetables are broken down by salt, releasing their water and gradually submerging the entire mixture. Some doubanjiang mixtures use oil, some don’t. The mash can be fermented covered or uncovered, for months or for years. Each method creates a unique biome and a distinct flavour profile.
As millions of farm families moved to the city, these very personal tastes and traditions were replaced by mass-produced brands. When I attended a cooking trade school in Sichuan, I was told that the famous doubanjiang from Pixian was the only choice because that was the taste customers would expect. That may be true at the mid-level, but the better kitchens scoffed at the idea. They make their own.
Most Sichuan dishes start with a spoonful of spicy doubanjiang, always fried with aromatics to release its fragrance. The paste is the grounding taste in classic dishes like mapo dofu and fish-fragrant pork.
But just like soy sauce, spicy doubanjiang also has myriad uses outside of Chinese cuisine. The blend of heat, salt and, umami makes it a good complement to any combination of tomato and chillis, such as the marinade for Anas Atassi’s Shish tawook. A spoonful of spicy doubanjiang fried along with onions and garlic adds an extra layer to meatless dishes like the Vegetarian Kitchen’s chickpea and cauliflower tagine. Just make sure to adjust the salt accordingly.
Northern-style bean pastes are more salty than spicy. Known in Chinese simply as Soybean Paste (huangdoujiang), mixtures like the Ground Bean sauce sold by Lee Kum Kee are the basis for many northern-style dishes. Unlike complex, fiery Sichuan-style doubanjiang, this straightforward paste is basically salt, water and soybeans being gradually digested by billions of obliging microbes. Being water-based, huangdoujiang is often used for wet cooking methods, like braising meat and as a sauce for steamed fish, a heartier substitute for the soy sauce used in southern styles. It is also the foundation for Beijing’s signature “fried sauce” noodles. When I first heard about this dish, my reaction was “how can you fry sauce?” Now I am more prone to ask how could you not? Not for the faint of heart (or high of blood pressure), this intensely-flavoured sauce is made by slow-cooking huangdoujiang with diced pork belly and a pile of minced onions, gradually boiling out the water and replacing it with rendered fat. Jereme Leung has a healthier version.
Other cooking sauces are made by blending fermented beans with chillis and spices. Chinese home cooks mix their own chilli oil using doubanjiang or its dark, wheat-based cousin tianmianjiang as a base, adding in the salted black beans called dou chi. Slowly fried together, these ingredients gradually transform into a toasted chilli oil similar to the globally popular Lao Gan Ma brand. Like any ‘red oil’, Lao Gan Ma can go right into the pan at the beginning of cooking or can be added at the end to give a finished dish an extra kick
Blended with minced garlic, dark vinegar, and crunchy peanuts, fried chilli oil brings a smoky heat to a dish of smashed cucumber, cold buckwheat noodles, or silky tofu.
Another method blends fermented beans with fresh ingredients to make a water-based sauce, such as the many chilli garlic sauces on the market. These as well can go right into a dish, ideally near the end, since they tend to scorch if heated too quickly. Rather than buying a commercial sauce, I prefer to make my own by grinding dou chi, chillis, garlic, and ginger into a paste, panfrying the mixture in oil to bring out the fragrance, and then balancing it with salt, vinegar, lime juice, or sugar to reach whatever flavour I am aiming for. This sauce is even better after two weeks in the refrigerator.
What about soy sauce? We all have a bottle sitting somewhere. If yours is crusted shut after years of languishing in a cupboard, you might simply have the wrong one. Soy sauce is nothing more than the liquid pressed off of a mash of fermenting beans, and there are as many tastes as there are of doubanjiang. “Dark” soy sauces are extremely strong—these have had the water evaporated out and are especially good for adding colour to a dish but can quickly overpower every other taste. Pour a few drops of your soy sauce into a spoon and judge the taste. Some brands strike me as unpleasantly industrial, acidic, or tinny. Or simply fake. If your resident soy sauce has any ingredients besides beans, wheat, salt and water, you’re probably better off tossing it out and starting off with a new bottle.
If you do find one that you especially like, you may soon find that you can add a bit of soy sauce to nearly any savoury dish, and a few sweet ones too. Just a dash, mind you, but those few drops will add a new layer of depth that salt alone could never mimic.
Explore the recipes mentioned in this piece below, or search ckbk for "chilli bean paste"