Foodstuff: Salted Black Beans

Salted Black Beans are a fermented soy product and are often referred to as Fermented Black Beans or Chinese Fermented Black Beans in English. In China where they are used perhaps more extensively than anywhere else, they are known as 豆豉, or dòuchǐ in Pinyin. The is simply the basic character for bean, while the 豉, or chǐ, specifies beans that have been salted and fermented. Similar products also appear in other Asian cuisines, notable Japanese and Korean, but there are also varieties in the Philippines and in Vietnam. In some places, the bean are inoculated with yeast to achieve fermentation but the traditional Chinese method just involves salting and the process is much slower and result is unique. One Japanese version called natto is definitely an acquired taste and has a very cheesy appearance and taste that many find offensive.

 The beans, upon salting, begin to dry out and darken as they ferment producing small, still soft pellets which some liken to raisins. They may wrinkle slightly, although not as much as raisins, and, to my mind they look a lot more like the droppings left behind by rabbits (although they taste a good deal better). The aroma is very warm and sweet with a definite undertone of chocolate. One can often also detect hints of rich tobacco and pepper as well. The taste of the uncooked dry bean is quite salty, as one might imagine, and it will be instantly familiar to those who enjoy miso soup. It is has the same umami, fermented bean flavor as miso but there is a also a slight bitter quality that offsets the saltiness a little. The heavy chocolate quality of the aroma is also present in the taste but it is very much more muted.

 Black Beans are occasionally added to a dish in their whole state but more frequently they are mashed, either wholly or partially, to make a sauce. Other ingredients can be mashed in with the beans, or added afterward, and these typically include garlic, ginger, sugar, chili, or any combination thereof. Many recipes advocate soaking the beans in water for some tine in order to reduce the saltiness but I have never really seen the need, particularly since they are only used in small quantities to begin with. I do, however, often soften the beans with just a little boiling water before using them as it plumps them up and helps bring out the flavor when they are mashed.

There are quite a number of commercially produced black bean sauces available. Some are just the plain salted bean, but others have other added ingredients like garlic. In the main, however, I prefer to make my own sauce from scratch for each separate recipe as I dislike many of the commercial preparations. In the commercial varieties, the chocolate quality of the aroma comes through in the taste to a degree I find much too pronounced. Also, while the juice thrown off by the soaked beans that you see in the picture are nicely warm and brown, many commercial preparations contribute a nasty black color to the finished dish. One exception to my general dislike of commercial salty black bean pastes are the varieties made with chili oil. I hope to feature one or more brands of this type in upcoming posts.

In the Chinese kitchen, salted black beans are often paired with fish and shellfish, especially in steamed dishes. They are also often made into a sauce for stir-frying with meats and vegetables and they go very well with sweet and hot peppers. They are a staple in the Chinese province of Hunan and readers of this blog may recall them being used in my Hunan-style Smoked Pork Hock from an earlier post.

I have found some nice recipes that illustrate the range of uses for black beans and a few of the better ones are provided below:

One of my all time favorite dim sum dishes, and one that I always order in restaurants when available, is steamed pork rib with black bean. I am on the lookout for some decent ribs in my local store so that I can make it myself soon and I will share the results in an upcoming post.

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