Sweet Bean Sauce (Tian Mian Jiang)

Famous dishes like Beijing Zha Jiang Mian rely heavily on sweet bean sauce. How does it vary from other bean sauces and pastes, such as sweet bean paste, hoisin sauce, ground bean sauce, and so on?

Indeed, its misleading name often leads to misunderstandings among amateur cooks. Find out why, along with every other relevant detail, below!

Substance-Wise, What is Sweet Bean Sauce?

A thick, dark brown condiment and seasoning, sweet bean sauce (tián miàn jiàng) is prepared from wheat flour, sugar, salt, and sometimes fermented soybeans. The sauce is sweet, as the name implies, but it is also salty and adds umami to the food.

But even the name is deceptive. The most common English translation uses the word “bean,” but wheat, not soybeans, is the main ingredient. Some brands, however, use only wheat flour in their preparation.

It’s a good reminder that the English translations and labels of Chinese ingredients are sometimes spot-on and can cause confusion.

The name “tian mian jiang” in Chinese means “sweet flour sauce” in English. Indeed, this is what it is called on the labels of some brands, though others prefer to call it “sweet flour paste” or “sweet wheat paste.”

Further confusing matters, sweet bean sauce is often called hoisin sauce or bean paste in different brands and recipes. Despite their shared properties and flavor profiles, these three components are quite distinct.

Let us compare and differ on the following key-points:

  • Hoisin sauce is typically made with a different set of additional seasonings and is thinner and lighter in color.
  • Hoisin sauce depends heavily on fermented soybean paste, while tian mian jiang treats soybeans as more of a garnish.
  • Bean paste is distinct from tian mian jiang because it is typically produced from fermented soybeans rather than fermented wheat.

The Bottomline

In light of the many discrepancies in product labeling, checking the list of ingredients is your best bet.

You have hoisin, ground bean sauce, Chee Hou Sauce, and soybean-based sauces if soybeans or soybean paste are the first ingredients. The tian mian jiang is authentic if wheat flour is a primary ingredient.

We’ve written dedicated articles for each to help you sort out the similarities and differences between these sauces with similar-sounding names.

How is it used?

Northern Chinese dishes like Beijing Zha Jiang Mian rely heavily on sweet bean sauce. This component is responsible for the traditional dish’s deep, rich color and velvety texture.

It is also versatile as a condiment or sauce addition for stir-fries.

Purchasing and Storage

This component is sold in Chinese supermarkets and on the internet, though the latter option will always cost you more. This post’s photos show you can get a decent-sized can for under $3 (12-16 ounces/300-400 grams).

After opening, refrigerate for best storage results. It is sometimes sold in cans or plastic packets; however, resealable jars are your best bet. If there are any leftovers, you can store them in an empty jar at home.

When properly refrigerated, it will keep for up to a year. To reduce the risk of contamination from outside sources, use clean utensils at all times.


You can use sweet bean paste or hoisin sauce as a replacement for the sweet bean sauce if you can’t find any.

Though we’ve stressed their identities here, these components can stand in for one another. The taste is sufficiently close.

It’s also cheaper than buying four separate jars of sauce.

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