Saturday, November 19, 2011

Jade fava bean pâté from Shanghai

Dried beans rarely make an appearance in Chinese cuisine except when they are sweetened, like red bean paste (dousha) or mung bean paste (lüdousha). One of the rare exceptions is fava beans, and the place where this always tends to occur is Shanghai.

A short while ago we looked at Shanghai's Sprouted Fava Bean Appetizer.  Today it is a sister dish, one whose secrets also eluded me for the longest time. But I am so delighted with this final recipe that I would be happy to stack it up against any version out there.
Butter: the secret ingredient

Unlike any other sampling I've enjoyed over the years, this one is truly creamy. My trick? A not very Chinese addition of some butter. Yes, this definitely is not kosher, but as with some of my other reworkings of classic recipes, some butter makes all the difference between a dry, powdery texture and something so creamy and delicious that it is hard to stop eating it.

In fact, the idea for adding some butter came from the last character in this dish's name: su. Used mainly when referring to certain types of pastries, su means that the texture is crumbly and buttery, like the baked morsel of fragile pastry leaves filled with a salted egg yolk and red bean paste called danhuang su, or "egg yolk crumble."
Another difference between this and the servings of Fava Bean Pâté that I've eaten in Jiangsu-style restaurants is that my version leaves some of the peeled beans fairly whole, others are crushed, and the rest mashed. This gives the appetizer a terrific mouth feel and also provides visual clues as to what is inside this lovely mixture.

Crush the beans
Many of the recipes I referred to say that whole fava beans should be soaked and sprouted as in the sprouted fava bean recipe. And I've tried that, but there really isn't that much to be said for all the extra work. So yes, if you can't find peeled fava beans, then go ahead and soak and sprout them as mentioned in this recipe, and also tear off the little roots while you slip off the skins, since both will be too tough for this unctuous pâté.

You many wonder why I am calling it a pâté. Well, it doesn't have much meat in it, and it certainly isn't as fatty as a true French pâté, but it reminds me of some of the better vegetarian versions I've tried, like ones made out of lentils and mushrooms, for example. What is more, although this is traditionally served at the beginning of a meal and eaten with chopsticks, this is completely fabulous spread on toasted bread, the buttery texture practically oozing on the crostada.

In addition to the beans and butter, the other main attractions are pickled mustard greens (xuelihong) and some finely diced Chinese ham. You can use prosciutto if no Chinese ham is in the offing, or even minced black mushrooms for a vegetarian rendering; this is important to provide an extra level of richness and depth of flavor. The pickled mustard greens provide the crunchy, slightly tart counterpoint to all of this decadence, and because they are a bright green, this is also why the dish is described as feicui (imperial jade).
Slices of Chinese ham

Those of you who read Chinese might be wondering why this is called "douban" when there are bean sauces (doubanjiang) and hot bean sauces (la doubanjiang) that hail from Sichuan with the same characters. Douban refers to peeled beans, nothing more. And that is why good doubanjiang always have beans running around in them for extra texture, as well as flavor.

And if you don't mind being even more nontraditional, try serving this pâté on toasted slices of baguette with a chilled Prosecco. Think of it as a modern day Marco Polo feast.

Fry the aromatics first
Jade fava bean pâté from Shanghai 
Feicui douban su  翡翠豆瓣酥 
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

8 ounces dried, peeled fava beans
1 teaspoon sea salt
Filtered water
6 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 slices fresh ginger, finely chopped
3 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped Chinese ham or prosciutto
6 ounces (½ cup) pickled mustard greens (xuelihong), rinsed carefully and finely chopped
2 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon fish sauce
3 tablespoons salted or unsalted butter

1. Soak the fava beans at least 24 hours until plump and tender, changing the water every 8 hours or so.

Peeled, soaked fava beans
2. Rinse the beans, place in a saucepan, add the salt, and cover with filtered water. Bring the water to a boil and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook the beans until they just start to fall apart; the time will vary depending upon the size and freshness of the beans, as well as how hot your stove is. Drain off all but a few tablespoons of the water. Use a potato masher to coarsely crush the beans; leave most of the beans broken and a few whole to give the pâté a nice texture.

3. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat until it starts to shimmer. Add the ginger, onions, and ham, and stir-fry them for about 20 seconds to release their fragrance. Add the pickled mustard greens and quickly fry everything for another minute.  Toss in the crushed beans and stir-fry the mixture until most of the moisture has cooked off. Add the sesame oil, fish sauce, and butter, stir the pâté a few more times, and check the seasoning; it should taste rich and delicious with a gentle saltiness.

4. Serve the pâté as an appetizer or side dish, or as a dip with toasted bread. It is delicious hot, warm, or cold.


  1. Hi Carolyn.

    This recipe just brought a big smile on my face. I'm from Apulia, in the South of Italy and my husband is Shanghainese. One of the most famous dishes in my region is a dry fava mash. It is eaten hot with a wild chicory. But I introduced my father to the cold pate the turkish eat with dill and plenty of lemon.
    My husband grandmother (mother side) is from Beijing and she found amusing my love for fava beans (peasant food for her)...well also for us.
    We also have our tricks to cook the fava. The fava should be cooked in a earthware pot. Here is a link for you, maybe you'll find interesting , sorry it's in Italian, in the post "fave e cicorie" you'll see the pot I'm talking and the long spoon it is used to whip the favas.


    p.s.: fish sauce in your recipe?

  2. Hi Francesca. That is a very intriguing blog. Also, so happy to read of your own family's recipes. I can never get enough favas. Chinese markets often have peeled fava beans in the frozen section, which are wonderful simply stir-fried with pickled mustard greens and some garlic (something your Shanghainese husband should enjoy).

    A question: why should the favas be cooked in an earthenware pot? How does this help the final dish? (I love information like this...)

    Fish sauce is sort of a secret ingredient in certain parts of China, where it is often referred to as "shrimp oil" (xiayou), but I have no idea where the name came from. The sauce adds a nice depth to dishes, a lovely meatiness on the palate, but you can use reduced chicken broth or some excellent soy sauce instead, if you don't care for it. Benvenuti nel mio blog!

  3. I didn't know about the fish oil! My mother in law doesn't use it. Very interesting.

    It is very traditional in Italy to cook beans in earthware pots. There is a lot of discussion also in Italy on the advantages and disadvantages of this material. The particular shape of the pot I linked is very good to retard water evaporation and keep the beans from drying out too quickly. In the past people would leave the pot in the fireplace and the beans would slowly cook and acquire a pleasant subtle smoky flavour This immage is from a friend, whose family still cooks very traditionally.

    Thanks for the welcome. I'm avidly reading your blog. I'm trying to fill the gaps of my knowledge of chinese cuisine.


  4. Yes, I haven't seen that many home cooks use fish sauce, but old recipe books mention it quite a bit, so it might have been more commonly used in restaurants. One thing that is nice about fish sauce is that it is a flavor enhancer like MSG, but is natural and has no side effects (unless you are allergic to fish or shellfish, of course).

    Oh my, that photo is wonderful. Thank you! Makes me hungry just to look at it...