Why it seems that EVERYONE loves Sichuan food? I mean, Americans love it, Europeans love it, Chinese love it, but those people’s default flavor patterns couldn’t be more different.
In one of my trips to Chengdu, a Sichuan restaurateur hinted me—— maybe the answer lies in the quintessential ingredients in almost every Sichuan dish: spicy fermented chili pastes and pickled vegetables. He suggested the fermentation and pickling process might be the keys to solving my puzzles, hence I began my research.
Today’s post is about spicy Sichuan fermented chili paste, aka Pi’xian (a city’s name in Sichuan) Broad Bean Paste (郫县豆瓣). It’s a condiment that exists in almost every famous Sichuan dish you love, and yet so few people have written about it.
An experienced Sichuan cook would tell you that when cooking those classics, you have to start your wok with Pi’xian Broad Bean Paste. It is called “stir-frying out the red oil and fragrance”, which is essential to creating that beautiful red shin in the final dishes.
Try tasting Pi’xian Broad Bean Paste by itself: you wouldn’t immediately register it as spicy, because it’s not. The type of chili pepper used——the locals call it Er Jin Tiao——looks very close to cayenne pepper.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find any research or study about Chinese chili peppers, so I can’t say for certain that the two is connected. That said, the cayenne pepper sits on the bottom of the SHU (Scoville heat units) scale, and based on my taste memory, so is Er Jin Tiao pepper.
The most pronounced character of the paste is the “salivating experience” caused by umami. Putting a tiny spoonful of the paste into your mouth, you will first find out that this paste is salty, very salty, with a hint of spiciness and sweetness. But immediately, you’ll realize that there is something more to this salty-ness: you’re salivating, in a very pleasant way.
The texture of the paste is rather coarse, big chucks of darkened (because of the fermentation) fava beans and large pieces of chili flakes usually make up the majority of the content.
Though Pi’xian Broad Bean Paste is quintessential to Sichuan cooking, buying it for your own kitchen is another story.
- Should you clutter your condiment cabinet with anther exotic spice?
- What else can you use it for?
- How long do they preserve?
- Where to buy one?
- How to choose a good one?
These are all questions that will be answered in this post.
First and foremost: Yes, you should buy one, but not a lot. The smallest package you can find will be sufficient.
Don’t take me wrong. I don’t plan on suggesting buying every kind of condiment I write about in my blog. I hate a cluttered condiment cabinet. The reason Pi’xian Broad Bean Paste deserves a shot is: 1) It brings up your appetite like magic. 2) It almost will never go bad.
Whenever you don’t feel like eating but have to——take a pan, put some oil and a dollop of Pi’xian Broad Bean Paste, “stir-frying out” the red oil and sauté whatever frozen veggie you have in your fridge, and VIOLA! You don’t even need salt or pepper or soy sauce or anything, and you’re guaranteed to love that simple plate of nutrition and yummi-ness you just created.
Also, this paste lasts almost forever. I know this doesn’t sound that right, but here’s why: the process of making the Pi’xian Broad Bean Paste is a process of years of fermentation, and the longer it ferments, the more fragrant and higher quality it becomes. So as long as your jar of the paste stays un-contaminated, it will stay good.
To make the paste, fresh Er Jin Tiao pepper is first being mixed with large amount of salt, and sun-dried for a few days. Meanwhile dried fava bean is being soaked, and then mixed with wheat flour, soybean flour and glutinous rice——the enzyme and bacteria in the flour mixture is essential to the fermentation process. Finally the beans meet the pepper, and 12~36 months later, we have Pi’xian Broad Bean Paste.
Although being named after Pi’xian, a town 10km northwest of Chengdu, the paste is not originated there. In the old days, every family in the Chengdu suburban area makes this paste, and there are no secrets on how to make it. Two businessmen from Pi’xian commercialized the production cycle and advertised this paste to the rest of China, and that’s how Pi’xian Broad Bean Paste gets its name.
How to choose a good one? Well, ideally you could buy one while you’re travelling in China, but this type of paste is indeed sold in every Asian grocery store across the world and on Amazon (no affiliated link, I don’t plan on making a fortune with this). When buying them, look for the ones that don’t contain many preservatives. Pi’xian Broad Bean Paste is made with large quantity of salt, which acts as a natural preservative. Additional chemicals would mean the production process is probably sped up and not traditional, and I’d advise to be cautious about them.