My secret ingredient: Sichuan chilli bean paste

Sichuan chilli bean paste is one of the most important and distinctive ingredients of Sichuanese cookery. It’s often called Pixian chilli bean paste because it’s made in Pixian, just outside the capital Chengdu. Usually it’s made with broad beans – not soya beans – and a particular variety of local chillies called er jing tiao. It’s used in lots of famous dishes like mapo doufu, twice-cooked pork, and lots of hearty home-cooking in Sichuan. My father puts it in shepherd’s pie; it just has this extra level of savouriness and deliciousness and a slight edge of spiciness.It’s a sort of chunky paste, not entirely smooth. Sometimes you get whole pieces of bean, and in that case, it’s better to blend or finely chop it. When it’s freshly made, the chillies are bright red and the beans dark, but as it matures, it goes a sort of darker chestnut-y colour and eventually almost purplish. Some varieties will have oil in them; they are a fairly dark red and look glossy.

It’s not wildly spicy; this particular kind of chilli is not really hot. It just has this lovely earthy, fermented bean taste and a medium belly-warming chilli flavour.

It’s a paste that is never used uncooked. When you’re using it, the first thing is to sizzle it in oil. The oil will go red, and it will smell wonderful, which is called chaoxiang (frying fragrant).

The best brand is Juancheng; it’s not always possible to get in the UK, I can sometimes buy it in Chinatown. The most widely available is Lee Kum Kee Sichuan chilli bean sauce toban djan. There are more ingredients than in the traditional version, but you can still make delicious dishes. The ingredients should be broad beans, chillies, salt and wheat flour. The closer your ingredients are to those basics, the better your chilli bean paste.