LKK Spicy Bean Paste – 麻婆醬 – Ma Po Sauce
The Lee Kum Kee Company is known worldwide for high quality cooking products, and I always have at least a few of their specialties on hand. Their Spicy Bean Sauce is described as being a ‘Ma Po Sauce’, and even has a recipe for a simple version of the classic Chinese dish Ma Po Tofu on the label (and also at the website). Unfortunately, even a review of the ingredients makes clear that this sauce departs considerably far from the traditional Ma Po composition and, in that sense at least, Lee Kum Kee has rather failed here. That being said, though, as a generic ‘Spicy Bean Sauce’, it has terrific flavor and makes for a very useful and versatile sauce base for all sorts of other dishes.
The Ingredients in the Lee Kum Kee™ Spicy Bean Sauce
The label on the jar, and the product entry at the website lists the ingredients as being:
Water, fermented soybean paste (water, salt, soybeans, wheat flour), salted chili peppers (chili peppers, salt), sugar, tomato paste, sesame oil, oyster sauce (water, sugar, salt, oyster extractives (oyster, water, salt), modified corn starch, caramel color), sesame paste, Sichuan pepper, modified corn starch, dehydrated garlic, lactic acid.
The Tomato paste immediately leaps out to those looking at the product with a critical eye as a traditional Ma Po dish is not in any way tomato based. It is also significant that the two signature components of a proper Ma Po Tofu, being the Sichuanese Ferment Chili Bean Paste, and Salted Black Beans, are conspicuously absent.
The inclusion of the tomato paste, whose acidity lends a tangy note, and the fairly significant amount of sugar, along with the sweetness of Oyster Sauce, produces something that might be considered as an ‘Americanized’ Ma Po Sauce, but it is that same sweet/sour quality, along with the absence of the aforementioned signature flavors that makes it difficult to accept this as a traditional Ma Po style sauce base.
Appearance and Taste
The sauce, as you can see has a reddish tint and is fairly homogenous with a few small, unidentifiable ‘bits’ in the mix. The aroma, on opening the jar is not especially striking, or remarkable, and the faint tang that is noticeable is not very much different than that of a generic ‘ready-made’ Chili con Carne sauce minus the Cumin.
As for the taste of this self-described 麻婆醬 when sampled right from the jar, it is dominated by a very fruity tomato taste and, although Sichuan Pepper is included as an ingredient, it is clearly added in such small amounts that their taste and ‘numbing’ effect is totally absent. In a test recipe, I did note that the sharp fruitiness became less pronounced, but so did the chili notes.
For a test of the product as a ‘Ma Po Sauce’, I more or less followed the simple recipe for Ma Po Tofu provided by Lee Kum Kee, except that I substituted diced Eggplant for the Tofu (which I don’t care for it especially). The result was actually really nice, and I was generally pleased with the dish, but it lacked the traditional Sichuan 麻辣 (málà), or ‘hot and numbing’ qualities, and so failed as a traditional Ma Po style sauce base.
Lee Kum Kee’s Spicy Bean Sauce worked very here …