Reorganising my jar and bottle cupboard in the kitchen, you know the one with all the different vinegars (3 types of balsamic, white/red/rice wine, cider, strawberry), I found that I’d accumulated 5 different brands of chilli bean pastes. I don’t really know how this has come about but it’s a handy opportunity to do a taste test on them!
Chilli bean paste is a Chinese store cupboard essential. A mixture of chilli and bean (broad bean or soy bean) that’s been fermented together to give a deep complex umami flavour. It’s used in stir-fries, braises, hot-pots or anytime you want that addictive chilli hit. Particularly in Sichuan cookery where the chilli bean paste produced in Pixian county, Chengdu is considered the best. I’m not a Sichuanese expert so can’t comment on authenticity but I’m comparing them to chilli bean pastes from other parts of China so each of them is assessed on taste alone.
1. Lee Kum Kee – Chilli Bean Sauce 李錦記辣豆瓣醬
Salted chilli pepper, water, fermented soy bean paste, fermented broad bean paste, white sugar, garlic, modified cornstarch, chilli pepper powder, soy bean oil, acid
This is the one most people who cook Chinese food at home will have. LKK are a Hong Kong brand so is the most established in Chinese supermarkets here in the UK and in Western shops. Unusually it’s the hottest of the lot with a sweet garlicky flavour that doesn’t linger long. It doesn’t really have that fermented lactic flavour so it’s not really suitable for Sichuan dishes. The pale colour gives the game away a bit. I can’t imagine big vats of this having been fermented in the open for years at a time. A bit one dimensional, however it is good in stir fried prawns.
2. Juan City Brand 鹃城牌红油豆瓣
Chilli, broad bean, salt, wheat flour, vegetable oil, spices, food additives (potassium sorbate)
This plastic jar has a handy carry handle but unhandily if you don’t read any Chinese then it might be difficult to spot that it’s a Pixian style chilli bean paste. Ok there’s a clue in the company name in small print Sichuan Pixiandouban Co Ltd otherwise the jar I have has no other indication in English, not even ingredients. Which I’m sure is pretty illegal in this country. The importers need to sort this out. However I’m glad they’ve smuggled it in because the taste of this red oil 红油 version is fantastic. Rich red colour, well balanced flavour, mild to medium chilli, not too salty, perfect for twice cooked pork, the oily richness is lip-smacking.
3. Chuan Lao Hui – Hong Yau Dou Ban 川老滙郫县红油豆瓣
Chilli, broad bean, salt, wheat flour, sugar, pickled ginger, pickled garlic, vegetable oil, flavour enhancer
Comes in the same plastic jar with carry handle as the Juan City Brand. I wonder who is copying who? At least this jar has some English stuck on it from the importers Day In. This is also a red oil version of Pixian style chilli bean paste with extras. It has the same deep lip-smacking flavour but, probably due to the pickled ginger and garlic, is really too salty to use in the same quantities as the Juan City Brand. But the less you use the less umami impact you get in your food. I struggled cooking with this until I started using it as a base for hot-pot flavouring lots of chicken stock.
4. Fu Chi – Chilli Bean Sauce 富記辣豆瓣醬
Chilli, soy bean, barley flake, salt, sugar, sesame oil, acidity regulator
Taiwanese brand, the only one not to have any broad beans in but not lacking in deep rich flavour. The mildest of the lot, least salty, sweet round flavour so great to use in larger quantities. My favourite for fish-fragrant aubergines.
5. Sichuan Dan Dan Seasoning Co Ltd – Pi-Xian Fermented Broadbean 丹丹郫县豆瓣
Chilli, broad bean, salt, wheat flour
The purest Pixian chilli bean paste here and it comes in the most darling wicker basket! First saw this on Fuchsia Dunlop’s blog but could never find it anywhere so when I spotted it recently on http://www.souschef.co.uk/ I snapped it up. There are two plastic sachets of the chunky paste in the basket that you have to decant elsewhere. This is not a red oil version like the other two Pixian pastes, it’s quite dry, slightly saltier than Juan City Brand. Even used sparingly it gives a great hit of flavour. I definitely wouldn’t waste this in a hot-pot! Great in braises.