Doubanjiang: The Soul of Sichuan Cuisine

It's no secret that we're BIG on mapo tofu around here. Surprisingly easy to make and packing a giant flavor punch, it's rich, creamy, spicy, numbing and umami all at once. The secret to a truly great mapo tofu is in the Doubanjiang, or preserved fava bean paste, also known as the "soul of Sichuan cuisine", not to be confused with preserved black bean paste, or soy bean paste!

The county of Pixian outside of Chengdu is the birth place of doubanjiang, and where it's still made the traditional way, fermenting fava beans with chili peppers (Erjingtiao variety) and salt. We are proud to carry some of the best doubanjiang in the world, straight from the source in Pixian and aged over 3 years (extremely rare and full of complex umami flavor that far exceeds any conventional doubanjiang available on the market)

It's not just good for mapo tofu either. Doubanjiang is a key ingredient in numerous Sichuan dishes including Twice-cooked Pork, Douban fish, hot pot bases, stews and more.

Below are some of our favorite ways to use Doubanjiang!

TWICE COOKED PORK

Image Credit: The Woks of Life

For this classic Sichuan dish, the star of the show is pork belly, you want a nice fatty whole slab about 60% meat and 40% fat. You’ll also need Doubanjiang. The other specialty ingredient you need in addition to Sichuan Chili Crisp would be the Tianmianjiang (sweet bean paste), this version available on Amazon works or check your local Chinese grocery store, there's not really a good substitute.

This recipe also requires two steps, so prepare the pork by boiling and cooling it a few hours beforehand.

RECIPE

1 lb slab of pork belly, about 60/40 lean to fat
A few slices ginger
2-3 scallion whites, long pieces is fine
1 medium leek, cut into thin strips about 2 inches long

SAUCE

1 tbsp Doubanjiang
1 tbsp Sichuan Chili Crisp
1 tbsp Tianmianjiang (sweet bean paste)
1 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp sugar or honey
1 tbsp fermented black beans

1. Bring a pot of water to boil and add slab of pork belly with ginger and scallion whites, simmer until cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Remove the pork and discard the rest.

2. Let the pork cool and then rest in the refrigerator until the meat is thoroughly cooled and firm (at least a couple hours.) This is so that the meat will be easier to slice. When ready, use a sharp knife (or your new cleaver) and cut the pork belly into slices as thin as you can (start from the skin side down), set aside until ready to fry

3. Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a wok until very hot, add pork belly slices and fry until they start to take on a little bit of color, push the pork up to the side of the wok or pan.

4. Now still on high heat, add Doubanjiang and Sichuan Chili Crisp to the pan, fry until fragrant. Add the rest of the sauce components and mix the pork belly back in, making sure the meat is well-coated. Add leek segments in last and fry until they are softened but still green in color.

5. Serve immediately over white rice.

DOUBAN FISH

This dish is incredibly warming and delicious, a perfect main course for a feast. The quality of Doubanjiang you use is important here as its the main event, giving the fish and tofu its deeply layered umami flavor.

RECIPE

1 large whole fish like sea bass or flounder scaled and cleaned
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1/2 block semi-soft tofu

SAUCE

4 tbsp Doubanjiang
2 tbsp finely minced ginger
1 tbsp finely minced garlic
2 cups stock or bone broth
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp cornstarch dissolved in 1 tbsp of water
1/2 tsp black vinegar
3 scallions, white and greens separated, thinly sliced
Bunch of cilantro

  1. Make a few shallow diagonal cuts on each side of the fish, rub with salt and let marinate for 20 minutes in the Shaoxing wine.

  2. Cut tofu carefully into slices about 1/3 inch thick and 2 inches wide, put into a large colander/slotted spoon and boil in salted water for about 3 minutes. Remove and set aside.

  3. Pat fish dry with paper towels

  4. Heat 3 tbsp of oil in a wok until smoking, add fish and fry quickly on each side until skin crisps up. Remove from wok and set aside, discard oil.

  5. Heat 2 tbsp of fresh oil in wok and add Doubanjiang, frying until fragrant and the oil is red.

  6. Add ginger, garlic, and scallion whites, frying until fragrant. Now pour in stock, sugar and soy sauce and bring mixture to a boil.

  7. Slide the fish carefully back into the wok and gently spoon sauce over it. Now turning the heat down, cover the wok and let simmer for about 5 minutes before turning the fish over and simmering another 5 minutes on the other side.

  8. Transfer fish to serving dish, and gently drape the pieces of tofu over the fish like a blanket, this part might be difficult but try not to break the tofu. (this is only for visual effect, but if you don't care just add the tofu however you want)

  9. Add vinegar and cornstarch water mixture to sauce and bring to boil. Once thickened, quickly pour over the tofu and fish. Scatter scallion greens and cilantro on top and serve immediately.

OUR FAVORITE VEGAN MAPO TOFU RECIPE

RECIPE

300g tofu cut into cubes (I prefer the texture of softer tofu but regular works as well)
1 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms (dried is important as it has much more concentrated umami flavor than fresh)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp minced ginger
2 tbsp Doubanjiang
2 tbsp Sichuan Chili Crisp
3 tbsp chili oil with bits (*super easy recipe for this below, but you can substitute with regular oil for less heat if you'd like)
1 tbsp fermented black beans
1/2 cup stock or bone broth
1 tsp cornstarch dissolved in 1 tbsp water
1/2 tsp whole Sichuan pepper
1 pinch ground roasted Sichuan pepper
3 scallions, whites cut in 1 inch pieces, greens thinly sliced

1. Soak dried shiitake mushrooms in hot water until rehydrated and soft enough to pulse in a food processor or chop into very small pieces, set aside.

2. Boil tofu in salted water, use a colander if you’d like to keep it from breaking, set aside.

3. Heat up chili oil* in a hot wok, add minced garlic and ginger and fry until fragrant. Add mushroom, doubanjiang, Sichuan Chili Crisp, fermented black beans and whole Sichuan pepper, and fry quickly to avoid burning

4. Add stock and bring to boil, add scallion whites, slide tofu into wok and stir gently with a rubber spatula to prevent it from breaking, let the stock reduce for about five minutes. Then, add cornstarch mixture and stir in until sauce thickens.

5. Transfer to serving bowl, sprinkle liberally with scallion greens and a generous pinch of ground roasted Sichuan pepper. Serve while hot with rice

CHILI OIL RECIPE:

Use chili flakes or grind up your own dried chili of choice to a medium grind, where you still see bits of the skin and seed. Use Erjingtiao for a fruity, mild heat, or chili de arbol or thai birds eye if you want to dial up the heat in your dishes.

Heat up your choice of oil to 325F, rapeseed is commonly used in Sichuan for its warm nuttiness and numerous health benefits, (but I have not seen actual rapeseed oil in the West- it is not the same as canola oil!), but peanut, soybean or grapseed all work fine.

When the oil reaches temperature, pour it over your chili and stir with a rubber spatula. The rule of thumb is to use about 4:1 oil vs chili bits in volume. So if you’re using 1 cup of chili flakes, pour about 4 cups of oil on top. Some people like to add cassia bark, star anise, cardamom and ginger in the mix as well for added fragrance, and that’s up to you, just strain it out before you use the oil.

Once cool, the oil will develop its flavor over the next few days, so it will be best used after a short wait. You’re going to find it hard not to drizzle it over everything you eat.

VARIATION: MAPO RAGU WITH HAND-PULLED NOODLES

NOODLES

250g high-gluten flour (Italian 00 farina works well)
1/2 cup water + more depending on weather where you are.
1 tsp Salt

SAUCE

Follow Mapo Tofu Recipe but omit tofu if you don't want it in your ragu, I personally think it's great with soft chunks of tofu. Double quantity of dried shiitake mushrooms for more texture in the sauce or add 150g of ground pork instead. (Pre-fry the pork in some oil and soy sauce until browned before adding to the sauce)

1. Combine flour, water and salt and form a dough. Depending on where you live and what the level of humidity is, you will need to add a tiny bit more water. Do it slowly so the dough doesn't become too wet. You want it to be smooth but not sticky. You could do this with a mixer or with your hands. Knead until smooth, cover in plastic wrap and leave for at least 30-60 minutes.

2. Unwrap and divide your dough into 2 pieces. Roll each piece out to a rectangular shape about 1/2 cm thick. Leave covered again for at least 15 minutes. Then use a knife to cut the piece into 1cm wide sticks.

3. At this point, the dough should be relaxed enough to work with, but if not, give it a few more minutes before you take each piece and start to gently pull it out, it should at least triple in length. Do it for every strand and make sure it's generously covered in flour so the strands doesn't stick together.

4. Put a big pot of water to boil and make sure to salt it well. Add the noodles when boiling and immediately stir gently with a spatula so the strands don't stick together. The noodles are done when they float to the top and upon checking, the insides are cooked through. This might take five minutes or longer depending on how crowded the pot is.

5. Drain noodles and put in a brief ice bath so they don't keep cooking. At this point, we usually add some cold pressed rapeseed oil in Chengdu to keep it from sticking and add some delicious flavor to it, but you can substitute olive oil or sesame oil.

TO SERVE

Add ragu to noodles and scatter with cilantro and scallions, top with shaved parmesan or salt-cured egg yolk for extra pizzazz!