The first tofu dish that I really fell in love with was ma po dou fu (aka mapo tofu) a Chinese specialty made with ground meat, tofu, salty/hot/rich sauce and numbing Sichuan peppercorn. If you have Asian Tofu, the recipe headnote tells the story how as a teen permitted to tag along on an adult lunch, I quietly ate most of what was served while the adults socialized. I wasn’t anti-social. I’d discovered a ridiculously delicious dish.
Over the years, I’ve tried out countless mapo tofu recipes and finally went to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where the dish originated. It was a central part of my tofu field work because I was looking to explore tofu hot spots and iconic dishes. While I learned a lot about various renditions of mapo tofu – from home cooks and restaurants including Chen’s (a chain built on the original version), I gained insight into what makes truly excellent versions: Dou ban jiang, a seasoning sauce made with fermented broad beans (fava beans) and chile.
The brick-red sauce may seem mysterious but once you try it out in mapo tofu, it lends a wonderfully savory, fundamental funk like no other. If you’ve made mapo with other chile sauces or bean sauces, they’ll pale by comparison to the results made with dou ban jiang.
The problems is that dou ban jiang can be tricky to find in Asian markets because the product name and packaging varies. I’ve spent too much time in the condiment aisle looking for the “good” stuff, deciphering Chinese characters and then taking my chances. I hope the information below helps you find dou ban jiang that’s to your liking!
Where to find it: At Chinese markets in the condiment aisle or sometimes the Sichuan section. Look high and low and at end caps. Sichuan cooking is “hot” right now.
Names: This kills me. The main ingredients are chiles, fava beans (aka broad beans), and sometimes soy beans. Dou ban jiang can go by chile bean sauce, broad bean chile sauce/paste, dou ban jiang, or toban jhan.
Packaging: The Asian market may carry this seasoning in jars, soft plastic packages, or bamboo or twine wrapped packages.
Coloring: The darker the sauce, the more mature (salty/spicy) it is. Some brands from Sichuan tout the time that their sauce has matured.
Pixian dou ban jiang: This is the preferred kind for mapo tofu since it’s made in the town of Pixian in Sichuan province. Uber Sichuan chef Yu Bo took my friends and me to a very old, well regarded artisanal producer of Pixian dou ban jiang. There was a baseball field full of urns in which beans and chiles fermented under the Sichuan elements. The mixture was turned by hand on a regular basis.
Brands to buy: Get the Pixian kind of chile bean sauce, if you can. The ones sold wrapped in paper and tied with twine are very good. If a kilo is too much to handle, get the kind in jars. (Or, how about sharing it with friends?)
Chile bean sauce is made outside of mainland China and there’s pretty good stuff. Taiwanese Minh Teh brand is terrific and less assertive (thanks to a little sugar and sesame oil) than its Sichuan-made cousins but look for the right name on the jar because the company’s labels tend to look the same. If all else fails, Lee Kum Kee’s Toban Jhan is typically carried at Asian markets; it’s decent stuff though not as complex as others.
Storage: If the sauce didn’t come in a container, transfer it to a jar or airtight plastic tub. I’ve left it in the plastic bag for too long and it aged. Refrigerate indefinitely.
Finesse dou ban jiang in your cooking: There’s a flavor profile for chile bean sauce but each brand has its own level of heat and saltiness. Taste your and then gauge the usage in a recipe. Often times, you can gradually add the sauce to a dish like you would salt, soy sauce and fish sauce. Master the brand that you buy.
Dou ban jiang uses aside from ma po tofu? I use it mostly for Sichuan dishes like dressing pressed tofu and peanuts and to make a vegetarian favorite of mock bear paw tofu (see Asian Tofu for recipes on pages 138 and 159). Dou ban jiang perks up tofu exceptionall well because of its big umami attributes and bold flavors. On the other hand, it’s terrific in Chinese-style spicy beef noodle soup.
If you’re familiar with dou ban jiang chile bean sauce, what’s your favorite brand and how do you use it?
Related post: High on Spice: 4 Kinds of Sichuan Peppercorns to Try