About the Author: Victor Paul Borg is from Malta. He has lived in six countries on three continents and spent much of the past 12 years in Asia. He currently spends his time in Europe and China. His travel articles and photographs have been published around the world.
For a paste that's celebrated as the soul or essence of Sichuan cooking, the chilli bean paste (in pinyin doubanjiang) is surprisingly simple. The paste itself looks arcane with its densely substantial and rich reddish colour - its pungent, textured flavours enhance a variety of dishes in Sichuan - and I often wondered about what exotic spices might account for such flavours. Then I found out that it's actually constituted of four basic ingredients - broad beans, red chillies, wheat flour, and water - and I began to understand its paradox: its rudimentary simplicity makes it unique and masterly. For other regions in China also have their douban pastes, but these tend to be constituted from soy beans and a dozen of other ingredients; only Sichuan's douban is made from broad beans (or fava beans). And yet Sichuan's douban, especially the douban made in Pixian on the northwestern outskirts of Chengdu, is widely considered in China and beyond as China's best doubanjiang.
So what it is that infuses it with such textured flavours given the basicness of the ingredients that goes into its making? It's the technique: the fastidious preparation and long fermentation. It starts with peeling and boiling dried broad beans, which are then drained and tossed in wheat flour. This spurs the growth of fungi, something that comprehensively ferments the beans over a period of six months. Then fresh chillies are chopped and mixed in together with salt and water to produce a chunky consistency, and the mixture is allowed to continue fermenting at least for another three months. It can even be aged for longer - the longer its age, the more profound the flavours.
But that's not the whole story. The climate also lends a hand. And the reason why Pixian's douban is considered the best is thanks to the micro-climate. Making use of the fresh water coursing out of the Min Mountains, and having the works within the prevailing moist and overcast conditions and high atmospheric humidity - all of these are said to contribute to superior fermentation process in Pixian.
Makers of douban in Pixian have perfected the technique process over hundreds of years. They ferment the douban in large earthenware jars covered by plastic lids; these are placed in yards amidst the elements (hence the plastic lids). Many of the manufacturers go through the rigmarole of mixing the fermenting paste in each crock every day - this aerates the mixture, enhancing the fermentation, and blends the flavours within different strata of the paste in the jars.
You can see the douban being made on a day-trip to Pixian (it takes less than 1 hour to get to Pixian from central Chengdu, travelling on subway and then taxi). And the most accessible place in Pixian where you can see the douban being made, or at least fermenting, is at the Museum of Sichuan Cuisine. This is a sprawling site that holds several interesting attractions within its grounds: a museum with artifacts associated with the development of cooking in Sichuan, an old temple, a large yard where douban is made and left to ferment in dozens of earthenware jars, a garden in traditional Chinese style, and a restaurant with an open kitchen.
The point of the open kitchen at the restaurant - the kitchen is not literally open, it's enclosed within glass partitions; if it had to be open the fumes from frying the douban and chillies on high flame would be overpowering - is to see how dishes are prepared, particularly the cooking techniques in the dishes which feature douban. It is mostly used in stir-fries (famously, it is used in mapodoufu for example), less commonly in stews, and it can give simple stir-fries a depth of textured tastes. At home, one of my favorite dishes is chopped cabbage stir-fried in a two spoonfuls of Pixiandouban. In stir-fries, the douban is tossed in hot oil in the wok, and then the other ingredients cooked in stages, depending on cooking times. It is said that douban is used in 40 to 60 percent of Sichuan dishes.
Nowadays many other types of chilli bean paste are found in supermarkets. These usually feature a range of spices that are added to enhance tastes, as well as other ingredients such as deep-fried slivers of beef and roasted sesame seeds and dried baby prawns; many of these are further flavoured with chilli oil. And although these can add variety to a kitchen, nothing beats the authentic Pixian douban for a true taste of Sichuan.
The Museum of Sichuan Cuisine (also known as Chuancais Museum) is at 8 RongHua North Road, Gu Cheng Town, Pixiancounty (it's on the main road between Pixian to Pengzhou, only 9km south of Pengzhou).
Tel: 028-87918008, 028-87919399