You know what? I predict that salty, pungent, Chinese fermented black beans will not only sound less creepy but become more widely embraced by American cooks in the near future. Why? Well, we’ve familiarized ourselves with soy sauce pretty well, dabbled with miso paste aplenty, and foraged into Asian grocery shelves for sauces like Korean gochujang and Sichuan doubanjiang (chili bean sauce). All are made from fermented beans. It seems a good time to take a look at them up close and personal.
If you’re looking for a dose of umami flavor that happens to be healthy and plant-based (e.g. not bacon), a fermented bean product is a sure way to go. It’s ages-old tradition in Asia, and comes in so many forms (sauces, pastes) as mentioned above; one of the most pure, unprocessed forms are certainly these little black soybeans (doushi). I used to buy jars of Chinese black bean garlic sauce, which is a mashed-up and seasoned preparation of them. Then I realized that you can get a lot of flavor from just a pinch of the actual beans, sold in most Asian groceries, too. I also used to be turned off by encountering a whole bean in a bite of my food, but now I savor more deconstructed dishes, with separate elements proudly showcasing their true colors individually. Use just a tad few of the beans if you’re shy. True, they’re very salty and intense on their own; think of them as little caplets of solid soy sauce.
Despite the word “fermented,” these beans do not taste funky. They’re complex, but not stinky or feety like the Japanese natto (made through a different process). They’re a little dry and sticky out of the package but soften instantly when mixed with hot liquids, spreading their flavor throughout dishes. Indeed, you can mash them up on the side to make your own sauce or paste, if that’s what you prefer. For any recipe that might call for a tablespoon of black bean garlic sauce, swap in about a teaspoon of the whole black beans instead.
This recipe can be adapted with just about any vegetable in addition to or instead of broccoli, or protein like chicken or tofu — or both veg and meat. I’ve been eating my way through an especially large head of broccoli lately (with pasta, usually), and really needed to give it a twist. The fermented beans made a handsome pairing with some chopped garlic and mild red chilies for seasoning. No soy sauce needed, as once the beans were added, a tasty, brownish sauce was nearly complete.
Stir-Fried Broccoli with Fermented Black Beans
(makes 2-3 servings)
1 large crown broccoli
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small red chili pepper, sliced
1-2 teaspoons Chinese fermented black beans (doushi)
1/2 cup water
1-2 tablespoons neutral oil such as vegetable
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 1/4 cup cold water
salt and pepper to taste
Cut the broccoli florets into equally-sized pieces. If a large piece of stem is left over, cut away its tough skin and slice it into thin discs.
Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over high heat. Add the garlic and chili, and once sizzling and fragrant (a couple seconds later), add the broccoli. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and stir briskly, about 1 minute, to gently sear. Add the black beans and the 1/2 cup of water and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, about 2-3 minutes or until the broccoli is cooked to crisp-tender. Give the cornstarch and water mixture one final stir to loosen it up and pour it into the center of the pan with the broccoli. Stir immediately; the sauce will bubble and thicken as it heats up. Taste for seasoning, adding any more salt or pepper if desired. Serve immediately.
(for 2-3 side dish servings)
1 broccoli crown (from bunch of 2/$3): $1.50
2 teaspoons fermented black beans: $0.50
2 cloves garlic: $0.20
1 small chili: $0.25
1 teaspoon cornstarch, 2 tablespoons oil, salt, pepper: $0.40
Three brownie points: Making a superfood like broccoli taste exciting enough to wolf down three portions of is the name of the game here. Strangely enough, the things that make it exciting here are also not bad for you — fresh garlic, chili, and salty beans. Just go easy there with the salt on this.
Five maple leaves: Get thy local brassicas before frost kills them all off, I say. My broccoli was found at the farmers market about a week ago, but was still fresh enough to use. Not sure how many are still around now, but you can always be sure to find California-grown ones in any greengrocer year-round.