Old Salts
3:35 pm
Mon April 14, 2014

A Word On Food: Fermented Black Beans

Click play to hear this week's edition of A Word on Food.

I remember looking at a can of soy sauce one day in the store room of Louie’s Backyard’s kitchen… and printed upon it were these words, “Established in 1250”, … as in the year 1250. “My Lord”, I muttered … to no one else … “that’s an old company.”

I didn’t know the half of it. Soy products (of which soy sauce is simply the most obvious), have been around in pretty much the same form since the 6th Century. And fermented black beans are probably the first known soy product. These beans are ancient stuff, my friends! In 165 BC they were placed clearly marked in Han Tomb No. 1 at in South Central China. The tomb was sealed for eons… and was first opened in 1972. The high ranking lady to whom the here-to-fore undisturbed tomb belonged to was probably the wife of the first ‘Marquis of Tai’.

Not to be confused with our wonderful Latin-Caribbean black beans, fermented black beans a.k.a. frijoles negros are ready to use from their plastic bag pouch they are kept and sold in. They are also known as “douchi” which shows the Chinese connection. Avoid any canned products. I like the Pearl River Bridge and Yang Jiang brands… the latter in the bright mustard-yellow cardboard container similar in shape to oatmeal, only a tad smaller. They will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator. But the point is … to use them!

Fermented Black Beans are a salt delivery system of the first order… but its freight is wrapped in a veritable kimono of ancient Japanese mystic umami! The great food scientist Harold McGee … explains it as well as one can. He writes, “Since there are only a few genuine ‘tastes’— sensations on the tongue … not the nose — certainly salt contributes the overall complexity and balance of flavor”. Heady stuff when you take that sentence in… grain by grain… He enigmatically adds, “Sorry there is not a neater answer, though maybe it’s good to retain some mystery in such a basic matter”.

The first question when using fermented black beans in a recipe is … “to rinse or not to rinse”? Though called fermented black beans primarily… they are also known as “salted black beans”.  My advice? It’s up to you really. If you don’t rinse them … be certain to avoid any other extra salt in the recipe you are creating. Other variables come in to the dialog as well. To mash … or not? To chop … or not? But let’s not get flustered. There are many things eternally true about cuisine and one is that ‘personal preferences’ are okay! And how do you learn which are yours? You cook! So don an apron over your kimono with me!

Fermented black beans can be used in countless dishes. Pork rib lets carry enough fat to balance the salt. Clams in a mirin sweetened broth ride a salty wave … but what a thrill! Tofu is an easy partner due to the blandness tofu should rightfully be praised for.

I have a dish on my menu where I lightly rinse them, roughly chop them and combine them in a saucepan with ginger, sake, rice wine vinegar and garlic. I reduce them together add a touch of chicken stock and a smaller touch of butter. This goes as one of the sauces with my “Deep Fried Sushi”.

Something they didn’t feature in the Sixth century.

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RECIPE FOR FERMENTED BLACK BEAN BUTTER

This is excellent with grilled fish.

Yields: about ¾ Cup. Can be multiplied up.

  • ½ Cup dry white wine
  • 2 Tablespoons mirin (rice wine)
  • ¼ Cup rice wine vinegar
  • Tablespoon ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon garlic, peeled and finely minced
  • jalapeño stem and seeds discarded, finely minced
  • 1 Cup Chicken Stock
  • ¼ Cup fermented black beans, soaked in a little cool water, rinsed & drained
  • 2 scallions, green and white parts, cleaned and sliced into small rings
  • Tablespoons cold butter, cut into a small dice

Combine the white wine, mirin, rice wine vinegar, ginger, garlic and jalapeño in a small saucepan on high heat and reduce by half, (about 3 minutes).

Now add the chicken stock and reduce the mixture to about ½ Cup, (about 15 minutes.) Now add the scallions and the fermented black beans and cook until just a little bit of liquid remains. Whisk in the butter and keep warm.

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