Sweet bean sauce is also known as tianmianjiang and is one of the key sauces for Peking duck and is used in a variety of noodle dishes. Its unique blend of umami and sweet qualities makes it difficult (but not impossible) to replace. Here are some of the best sweet bean sauce substitutes available.
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Your best bet: Hoisin sauce
Hoisin sauce was originally a dipping sauce for fried foods, particularly fried seafood and for Peking duck later on. It is made largely of fermented soybean paste and has a similar sweet and umami flavor profile to that of sweet bean sauce.
These days hoisin sauce is used as an ingredient in Chinese and Chinese-inspired dishes, especially stir-fries and is still one of the sauces that accompany Peking duck. You will often see it used as one of the traditional additions to Vietnamese pho.
Hoisin sauce can differ depending on who is making it since there is no single canonical recipe, but most versions are very thick and sticky. Hoisin sauce has crossed over into the West to a greater extent than sweet bean sauce, so you will probably have an easier time finding it in Western grocery stores.
Hoisin sauce has chili pepper, garlic, and other seasonings that you won’t find in sweet bean sauce. As a result, it has a more distinctive and assertive flavor than sweet bean sauce. While that flavor profile might enhance some dishes, it may mask the taste of ingredients in others.
A decent second choice: Doubanjiang
Traditional doubanjiang is a sauce or paste that originated in the Chinese province of Sichuan. The only true doubanjiang comes from Sichuan even though many other Chinese bean pastes get labeled as doubanjiang. It consists of fermented broad beans, chilies, and salt. Its saltiness and umami have a lot in common with the sweet bean sauce flavor. Some versions will contain wheat flour, which is also the main ingredient in sweet bean sauce. There are different versions of the sauce, including ones that are bright or dark and mild or hot.
Doubanjiang is usually used as a flavoring and coloring agent in dishes like mapo tofu and other stir-fried or braised dishes. Doubanjiang is relatively easy to find in Asian grocery stores, but may also be found in standard Western stores that have a well-stocked Asian section.
Doubanjiang has the same issue as hoisin sauce if you use it as a sweet bean substitute, which is that it has a strong flavor profile that may not work in some dishes that need a subtle background note.
In a pinch: Chunjang
Often described as the Korean equivalent to sweet bean sauce, Chunjang is a fermented bean paste made with soybeans and flour to which caramel has been added. It has the same kind of fermented, earthy umami flavor profile that you get from sweet bean sauce and has a little sweetness as well.
It is often used as a noodle sauce in the popular jajangmyeon dish and is sometimes as a seasoning for stir-fried dishes. You will also see it among the standard table condiments at some Korean restaurants.
Even though Korean food is more popular than it once was, Chunjang will likely not be as easy to find as other sweet bean sauce substitutes on this list.
Char siu sauce is sometimes described as Chinese barbecue sauce and is made using hoisin sauce and sugar. It is sweet with a strong umami character that can make it a good alternative to sweet bean sauce.