The great taste of paste

An update on the hot bean paste situation.

Last year I mentioned that Iris developed a taste for spicy foods and that, not coincidentally, I became addicted to Sichuanese hot bean paste (doubanjiang).

Since then, I’ve gone through a kilo of hot bean paste. This is the one I bought, and I recommend you do the same:

Chengdu Chuanxiangmei Pixian Broad Bean Paste (Doubanjiang), 2.2 lbs

You can also buy a smaller amount (300g), but I don’t see the point, because this stuff is worth using over and over. It’s not so much versatile as it is reliable, more Jack Nicholson than Meryl Streep.

The first thing to know about this chile paste is that it comes in very entertaining packaging. It’s in a sturdy airtight plastic pouch wrapped in paper. It feels like you could use it as a big hacky sack (note to autocorrect: I really hope there’s no such thing as a “jacky sack”), and when you open the paper, it’s like Christmas morning. The paste itself is deeply rust-colored and extremely chunky, which brings us to the second thing you need to know.

When you buy so-called Sichuanese chile bean paste in non-Sichuan-oriented stores—most stores in my area—you’ll usually be getting a product made in Hong Kong or Taiwan. It will usually contain soybeans in addition to or instead of fava beans, and it will be smooth-textured. The most common brand, Lee Kum Kee, can be found at some supermarkets. It’s not bad at all. It’s a lot better than no chile bean paste. But it’s not the same as the stuff made in Sichuan.

The Sichuanese stuff is made from fava beans, dried red chiles, and salt. The fava beans are whole or in large pieces, fermented until black, and the chiles are in similarly huge shreds. If you just throw this stuff into a dish, a mistake I made the first time I used it, you’ll be chewing all day and trying to choke down whole fermented beans. (Someone loves these things, I’m sure, but not me.)

I asked my friend Marc, who went to cooking school in Sichuan, about this, and he said that in his class, they chopped the paste with two cleavers until their hands were numb before cooking with it. I just emptied the whole plastic pouch into a food processor, blended it until fairly smooth, and kept it in a tub in the fridge, where it held fine for a year while I used it up.

Now, what can you make with this stuff? Here’s an incomplete list of what I’ve made in the last year:

  • Ma po tofu. With the exception of what I ate at San Xi Lou in Hong Kong, I’ve never had a better ma po tofu than what I’ve been making at home from Andrea Nguyen’s recipe. I use silken tofu. Yes, it falls apart, delightfully.
  • Fuchsia Dunlop’s Dry-fried chicken
  • Fuchsia Dunlop’s Red Braised Beef with Tofu Bamboo (find it in her book Every Grain of Rice
  • An improvised dish of ground pork flavored with doubanjiang, to be served as a sauce for rice or noodles
  • Fuchsia Dunlop’s salt-fried pork with garlic stems
  • And, lest you think this stuff is only good with meat, probably my number-one favorite recipe of the year, Fuchsia Dunlop’s Fish-Fragrant Eggplant. I’ve never been a big eggplant fan and I hate deep-frying at home. This dish is so great that I now deep-fry eggplant once a week.

Generally speaking, doubanjiang is made to flavor oil. You want to heat up some oil, cook the paste in the oil for a minute or two until the oil turns red, then use that oil to flavor the rest of the food. If you’re cooking ground meat, wait until it releases some fat, then add the bean paste and stir-fry until it all turns delectably red.

An exception is that beef stew with tofu “bamboo,” sticks of dried tofu skin that drink up the spicy, savory broth. If you’re not familiar with tofu bamboo, maybe I’ll introduce it next time. Until then, have fun depleting that doubanjiang.