Clarissa Wei on how to cook with fermented chili bean paste

by Clarissa Wei

17 September 2020

Twice-cooked pork, a traditional Sichuan dish made from doubanjiang, a fermented chili bean paste

Food writer Clarissa is back with authentic Chinese recipes made with famous Asian food products.

I’m a little late for the game, but I only started embracing the full potential of fermented chili bean paste last year. When I was living in Hong Kong as a full-time reporter, I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare meals, but I didn’t want to cut so many corners either. I love bold, spicy flavors, so this dressing, known as doubanjiang in Chinese, it quickly became my point of reference. I would mix it with light soy sauce and some sugar, season it with over a century of eggs, cut it up, and eat it with rice porridge. Or for dinner, I’d make a quick plate of mapo tofu with just a spoonful of doubanjiang and a little pepper oil.

Things:

Doubanjiang is a magical hot sauce from the Chinese province of Sichuan, made from fermented beans and a local variety of chili known as er jing tiao. Unlike spicy table sauces like Sriracha or Tabasco, this chili sauce is aged in clay jars for months, which gives it unique and deep layers of flavor.

Doubanjiang, a Sichuan chili sauce

As did:

First the beans are soaked and then inoculated with a fungal culture that makes them soft, bittersweet. Next, they are combined with a mix of spices and pulverized salted chillies, a combination that is then left to ferment, age and break down. The final sauce might seem a little one-dimensional at first; it is very salty, almost overbearingly. But the key is to cook it in hot oil so the subtleties can break through. I find the spicy flavor of the chili comes slowly, and there is a soft, delicate layer of sweetness that spreads afterwards. In Sichuan, a lot of doubanjiang it is homemade and aged in clay pots in the backyard. They are essentially generations of knowledge distilled in a jar, a sauce that tastes completely different depending on who makes it and where. Some people add a splash of wine and each has their own proprietary spice blend.

One of the main ingredients of doubanjiang are the beans?

They say the best doubanjiang the brands come from Pixian, a district of Sichuan. While locals will swear it’s the water that makes the salsa stand out from there, the truth is that Pixan’s dominance in the industry is a combination of keen marketing and centuries of experience. The city of Pixian is doing doubanjiang for over 300 years, and some sauces have aged for up to three years. Naturally and by association, doubanjiang it is the foundation of many Sichuan dishes. Mapo tofu owes its color and spiciness to this, and can be used in almost all sautées, with eggplant, fish, beef or fried rice. The key is to have confidence that the dish will sweeten with a combination of flavorings, a pinch of sugar and some cooking wine.

In the west, doubanjiang brands are very limited. Pixian’s are boldly advertised as Pixian’s, but they’re not always easily accessible in grocery stores. While there are numerous lists out there discussing the merits of different brands, if I had to limit myself to just one, it would be Juan Cheng—An old Pixian brand with roots in the 17th century. I’ve found that Cantonese and Taiwanese-made brands tend to err on the sweeter side and, oddly enough, these are the ones most commonly found in the Western world. I am currently spending the summer in Sweden, and the Taiwanese brand Fu Chi is the only thing I could find. It’s not that spicy, but the flavor is there and it’s pretty good for me.

To show the depth of this sauce, I developed a simple, condensed recipe for twice cooked pork. This is a traditional Sichuan dish, in which the pork belly is first boiled and then fried with flavorings and gravy.

Double cooked pork, a traditional Sichuan dish

Pork in double cooking

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Servings: 2

Ingrediants:

  • 450 grams of whole pork belly
  • 1 slice of ginger, about ¼ inch thick
  • 1 teaspoon of Sichuan red peppercorns
  • 2 shallots
  • Water (enough to cover the ingredients in the blanching pot)
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 4 dried chillies
  • 1.5 cup (140 grams) of leeks, cut into 2-inch wedges

For the sauce:

  • 2 tbsp doubanjiang
  • ½ tablespoon of black bean sauce
  • 1 teaspoon of sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of Shaoxing wine

Indications:

1. In a medium saucepan, add the pork belly, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, and scallions. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. Combine the doubanjiang with black bean sauce, sugar and Shaoxing wine. Mix thoroughly. Set aside for later.

3. Remove the pork from the pan and discard the liquid and spices. Pass the pork under cold water. Then on a cutting board, cut the pork belly into ⅛ inch thin slices. You can cut the leather here if you want, but it’s completely optional.

4. In a large wok over high heat, heat the vegetable oil. Add the chopped garlic and dried chillies and cook until aromatic. Add the sauce and cook until dark and fluffy, about 30 seconds. Turn the heat to medium, then add the pork and leeks. Stir until the sauce is evenly coated and the leeks are wilted.

5. Serve and enjoy with a bowl of white rice.

Follow Clarissa’s deep dive into her pantry for Chinese home recipes

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