Sweet bean sauce is a key ingredient in famous dishes like Beijing Zha Jiang Mian. But how is it different than sweet bean paste, hoisin sauce, ground bean sauce, and many of the other bean sauces and pastes out there?
Indeed, it often causes confusion among home cooks, because its name is pretty misleading. We’ll tell you why, and everything else you need to know about it below!
What Is Sweet Bean Sauce?
Sweet bean sauce (tián miàn jiàng, 甜面酱) is a thick, dark brown condiment and seasoning made from wheat flour, sugar, salt, and sometimes fermented soybeans. As the name suggests, the sauce is sweet, though it’s also salty and adds umami to dishes.
However, its name is also misleading. Despite the word “bean” in its common English translation, the primary ingredient in it is wheat, and not soybeans. Some brands are not made with any soybeans at all, and use only wheat flour.
This can be very confusing, and a reminder that English translations and labeling of Chinese ingredients can be a bit shoddy, and sometimes inaccurate!
In Chinese, the name tian mian jiang literally translates to: sweet flour sauce. Some brands label it more accurately as such, or as, “sweet flour paste” or “sweet wheat paste.”
To make matters worse, some brands and recipes use the term sweet bean sauce interchangeably with hoisin sauce and bean paste. While they all have similarities and even taste similar, they are actually three different ingredients!
Here are some key differences:
- Hoisin sauce is thinner and lighter in color and usually has a different set of additional seasonings.
- Fermented soybean paste is also a key ingredient in hoisin sauce, while soybeans are more of an optional ingredient in tian mian jiang.
- As for bean paste, it is also different from tian mian jiang, in that it’s primarily made with fermented soybeans rather than fermented wheat.
In the photo below, you can see jars of sweet soybean paste next to jars of sweet flour sauce (labeled by this brand simply as “sweet sauce”). It’s confusing as all heck! Even the jars look the same.
With all the labeling inconsistencies, the best way to know what you have is by looking at the ingredients.
If soybeans or soybean paste are the first ingredient, you have a soybean paste/sweet bean paste or other soybean-based sauce like hoisin, ground bean sauce, or Chee Hou Sauce. If one of the top ingredients is wheat flour, then you’ve found this tian mian jiang!
We’ve written separate articles about each of these confusingly named sauces, linked above, so you can read more about their similarities and differences.
How Is It Used?
Sweet Bean sauce is a mainstay of northern Chinese regional cuisine, used in dishes like Beijing Zha Jiang Mian. This ingredient is what gives that classic dish its dark, thick consistency.
It can also be used as a condiment (on jian bing or jidan bing Chinese pancakes, for example) or as a sauce component in stir-fries (like our Shredded Pork Stir-fry).
Buying & Storing
You can purchase this ingredient in Chinese grocery stores or online, though it will always be much more expensive online. As you can tell by the photos in this post, a good sized can (12-16 ounces/300-400g) should cost only about $3.
When it comes to storage, refrigerate after opening. Sometimes, it’s sold in cans or plastic packets—try to get it in resealable jars. Otherwise, you can transfer any leftovers into a clean jar at home.
It can last in a sealed container in the refrigerator for about a year. Just make sure to always use clean utensils to minimize the potential for external contamination.
If you don’t have sweet bean sauce, you can substitute sweet bean paste or hoisin sauce.
While we emphasized here that they are distinct ingredients, you can use them in place of each other. They are similar enough in flavor.
Plus, it beats buying 4 different jars of sauce!
Our Favorite Dishes That Use This Ingredient:
- Shredded Pork Stir-fry
- Beijing Fried Sauce Noodles (Zha Jiang Mian)
- Jidan Bing (Chinese Crispy Egg Pancake)
If you have further questions about this ingredient, let us know in the comments. We try to answer every single one.