Doubanjiang is a legendary seasoning paste from China’s Sichuan province. Because it is essential to the flavor profiles of dishes from this part of China, you should only opt for substitutes as a last resort. If you can’t find the real thing, here are some of the best doubanjiang substitutes to try:
Your best bet: Doenjang
Doenjang is a seasoning paste made of fermented soybeans, but it is Korean. Like China, Korea has a long history with soybeans, and they may even have originated there. While there are different kinds of doenjang with differing flavor profiles, they all provide umami and saltiness to the dishes in which they are used. Usually, doenjang is added to soups and seafood stews in Korean cuisine. Doenjang can be used to add the same kind of deep savory flavor that doubanjiang brings to dishes.
Doenjang is not always the easiest seasoning to find outside of Korea and places with high Korean immigrant populations. It is not spicy, so you will need to add chili peppers separately.
A decent second choice: Douchi (fermented black beans)
Douchi is the oldest known soybean product. It is a fermented Chinese seasoning made of black soybeans. The fermentation is done in earthenware containers, similar to the way that doubanjiang is fermented. Douchi is a popular element in both Sichuan and Cantonese cuisine. Douchi is used in the same kinds of dishes that require doubanjiang. Traditional applications for douchi include pork dishes like spare ribs and twice-cooked pork. You will often see it used to season vegetable stir-fries alongside aromatics like garlic and ginger.
Douchi is also an important part of the black bean sauce seen in many Chinese dishes. It is known for its sharp smell and salty flavor profile. Like doubanjiang, it gives foods a rich umami flavor. Douchi is extremely salty and should not be the main ingredient in a dish. Use it in tiny amounts.
Douchi is one of the better-known Chinese ingredients, which means that some form of it is usually easy to find even outside of specialty Chinese grocery stores.
In a pinch: Gochujang
A Korean seasoning paste, gochujang is used because of its mix of spicy and umami flavors. Gochujang is made with soybean paste and chili peppers, which are similar to the two main ingredients in doubanjiang. Gochujang is one of the more widely recognized Korean condiments, so it should be relatively easy to find outside of Korea. You might even be able to find it in the Asian aisle at a well-stocked Western grocery store.
The big difference between gochujang and doubanjiang is that gochujang is usually served as a condiment at the table and is relatively sweet. In comparison, doubanjiang is used to season food before or as it is being cooked and is considerably saltier. That said, gochujang does show up in marinades. It is commonly used in the marinade for bulgogi.
Sweet bean sauce, or tianmianjiang as it is known in China, is another umami-packed seasoning that can provide some of the most important characteristics of doubanjiang. Tianmianjiang is made from flour instead of beans and is not spicy, but you can still use it in the same kinds of dishes.
Miso is a fermented Japanese soybean paste that delivers umami and has the benefit of being relatively easy to find in the West. It lacks spicy heat, but you can add that in with chili oil or chili paste.