Chinese Salted Black Beans, or 豆豉, are fermented black soybeans which umami depth to all sorts of dishes. Read here to learn how to use them.
If you eat regularly in Chinese Restaurants, it is quite likely you have encountered Chinese Salted Black Beans at one time or another. They are used in a wide range of dishes, including those that are stir-fried or braised, but they feature quite frequently in steamed dishes, and many Dim Sum dishes incorporate them as a rich, umami ingredient. They have not yet crossed the cultural gap to the point that you find them in many Wester kitchens, but they are well worth trying and having on hand.
What are Chinese Salted Black Beans (豆豉)?
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 豆 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.
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).
What do 豆豉, or Salted Chinese Black Beans, taste like?
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 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.
Buying Chinese Salted Black Beans
When purchasing this ingredient, you need to look for beans that are plump, slightly soft, and a nice, dark brownish-black. You may encounter them with a whitish ‘dusting’ over the surface but this is just salt and need not concern you. If, however, the beans are shrunken, wrinkled, and hard, or else have a very faded color, then they are past their best and should be avoided.
Before moving on, I will note that you can also purchase jars of Salted Black Bean Sauce. 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, and they are often bitter as well. Also, while the juice thrown off by the beans in home-made preparations has a nice warm and brown hue, 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, and above, you can see the Lee Kum Kee Brand Chili Black Bean Sauce, which I find to be pretty good.
How to Use Chinese Salted Black Beans / 豆豉 in Recipes
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 time 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.
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.
I was served the Oysters Steamed with Salted Black Beans shown above at a restaurant in Vancouver’s Chinatown. This is one of those occasions where a commercially prepared Black Bean Sauce was used and it rather spoiled the dish. Once you cook with the ingredient yourself, you will easily begin to identify the difference in taste between the ‘fresh’ article and commercial sauces.
My Black Bean Steamed Clams Recipe illustrates a use of Chinese Salted Black Beans in which the beans are not mashed, but simply chopped and scattered over the primary ingredient before steaming.
Steamed Ribs with Black Beans is a common item on Dim Sum menus and one of my favorite dishes, both at home and in Chinese restaurants. If you are a novice to the ingredient, I would recommend this dish as an excellent introduction to their unique flavor.
Here in this dish of Black Bean Scallop and Shrimp, coarsely chopped 豆豉 are stir-fried with a little Green Pepper, before Shrimp and Scallop are added.
The above picture shows one of my Dim Sum style creations featuring Stuffed Peppers with Black Bean Sauce. The sauce is made from chopped Chinese Salted Black Beans with the rice wine, sugar, oyster sauce and sesame oil.