While I’ve cooked with Chinese fermented black beans for years, I didn’t realized how versatile they were until I had about 2 pounds of them on hand, leftover from working on the Asian Market Shopper mobile app and the Asian Tofu cookbook.
The little beans are not the same as what you cook up for a pot of cuban black beans! In fact, they are slightly moist and soft, a preserved seasoning ingredient used in many southern Chinese (Cantonese) kitchens. Expect salty, pungent, and winy qualities from the beans.
Wanting to use them up, I started cooking with them, mining my Chinese cookbook collection for recipes and ideas. When I was through, I had enough information about fermented black beans (dou chi in Mandarin, dul see in Cantonese, dau/tau xi in Vietnamese) and a small collection of delectable recipes.
Food editor Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times agreed to an article on the beans. We polished it in March and it was published over the weekend under the title, “Chinese fermented black beans a versatile staple.”
Four recipes were included in the story:
(Note: These are my shots and the links go to the recipes posted at the LATimes.com.)
Clams in black bean sauce – A classic Cantonese use of black beans, where they have a starring role. I order this often at Chinese restaurants but it’s a cinch to make at home. I buy the live clams at Asian markets. To keep them overnight, rinse, drain, and keep them covered with a damp towel in the fridge. Small (about 1 1/4” wide) manila clams is what I prefer.
Pork riblets braised in garlic and black bean sauce – Showcases how black beans can be used in a supporting role. Read: you wouldn’t know they were there but they’re responsible for the deep savory flavor of the ribs. These riblets are like the riblets in caramel sauce recipe that’s in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (suon kho, see page 148) in that they're deeply savory. On the first time out, my husband mistook the pork riblets for beefy morsels.
Hunan-style Tofu – I wanted to see how transformative fermented black beans could be when used with tofu. This vegetarian take on a popular Chinese tofu dish gets a double dose of fermented black beans via a stock and the seasonings that are deployed during the braise. Dried shiitake mushroom amp thing up. The result is umami-rich and delicious, good enough for carnivores.
Chile Oil – Finally, what about a condiment with black beans? You can keep it within reach. I typically like just the dried red chile flakes and peanut oil (the recipes in Asian Dumplings and Asian Tofu) because that simple combination is more pure and versatile. However, some chile oils contain other aromatics to add layers of flavor.
The version I settled on for the Times article came from Barbara Tropp’s China Moon cookbook. It includes fermented black beans, garlic and ginger too. The “goop” is great to eat. Add it to a bowl of noodle soup or finish a stir-fry with it when you want a hint of fragrant Asian heat.
Fermented Black Beans: Buying and Storage Tips
If you’re unfamiliar with Chinese fermented black beans, here are a few hints:
Where to buy: Chinese and Southeast Asian markets, usually in the dried, pickled, and preserved vegetables aisle where mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and dried tofu are stocked.
Reliable brands: Yang Jiang Preserved Beans in the charming 500-gram cardboard canister is a steadfast, reliable brand.
Another good brand of fermented black beans is Pearl River Bridge, which comes in a canister that’s less rustic than Yang Jiang and has a modern looking label. Plastic packages of the beans are fine so long as the beans look bright and fresh, not mashed and old.
Storage: Transfer the beans to a jar and refrigerate. They’ll keep indefinitely.
What to Use: Just the beans. I discard other bits, such as ginger, that come in the package. If you know what to do with those additions, let me know!
Prep: Depending on the recipe, I may rinse the beans for a more delicate flavor. Sometimes I mash, sometimes I don’t mash. Sometimes, I’ll coarsely chop. There is no consistent practice across the board.
Did I use up all 2 pounds of fermented black beans? No, I still have a pound to go. However, I’ll be looking to try recipes in Chinese cookbooks on my shelves, including these:
- The Breath of a Wok and Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge by Grace Young
- Key to Chinese Cooking by Irene Kuo
- Easy Chinese Recipes by Bee Yinn Low
- Complete Chinese Cookbook by Ken Hom
- China Moon Cookbook and The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp
- Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook (Hunan) and Land of Plenty (Sichuan) by Fuchsia Dunlop
If you’re into fermented black beans, what’s your favorite dish?
- Stir-Fried Chicken with Black Beans Sauce recipe - a Chinese favorite
- Stir-Fried Pork with Black Beans and Green Beans recipe - from Hunan