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Fermented Black Beans

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Summer Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(2)

William Shurtleff and his wife Akiko Aoyai collected hundreds of references about soybeans, a plethora of them about the soft shriveled fermented black ones this article is about. In educating the rest of us, they report finding written accounts describing them in 165 BCE. There are many bean varieties, many ways to produce their different textures, different things added to them, and different ways to make them. Some of the accounts make sauces, others remain firm and look like beans, some are fermented whole, others broken, mashed, and/or cooked. These different methods provide results that are not all the same.

The brand we prefer is found in major Chinese markets and made with fermented whole beans that become dark, soft, and black. One finds it in round cardboard containers, the label when cut off and laid flat is shown on this page. Called 'Yang Jiang Preserved Beans,' it says: BLACK BEAN, SALT WITH GINGER and is surrounded by a red design. The container adds that 'Yangjiang Preserved Beans with Ginger is processed by a traditional natural method with black beans grown in Yangjiang area and fresh ginger, as main ingredients.' The label continues, 'it has a crisp quality, delicious taste and rich nutrition, being the best kind of seasoning for Chinese food.' After opening it, one notices salt crystals clinging to the beans; that is OK. Tasting them raw or cooked brings Cantonese dishes to mind.

For information about the Shurtleffs and their Soy Center and the things they publish, do go to: www.soyinfocenter.com to learn about their many publications. There are many items of interest, one about soy sauce; it has thousands of references, but that is a topic for another article. There is also one about fermented black beans at their site. It includes many items consulted for this article. We read many of their references and are still reading more of them; it is a great resource.

Early fermented black beans were found in Han Tomb #1 at Mawangdui in the Hunan Province near the city now called Changsha. Very old beans were also found sealed in that tomb when it was first opened in 1972. Archeologists believe this tomb is that of the wife of the Marquis of Tai, and the beans found there the oldest soy food known to man.

We read they were prepared and cooked, drained, and inoculated with Aspergillis oryzae, a mold known to the Japanese as koji. After that process, they are aged longer, some referring to them not as 'aged' but 'ripened.' Experts believe this was done in salt water with fresh ginger and other seasonings and in wooden vats where they turn black. After about six months, the information we read, says they are drained and dried in the sun. It is at this point that most are sold in China, lesser amounts in Japan, the Philippines, and around the world, most sold to the Chinese.

Early citations found in this Shurtleff reference says the earliest are from 90 BCE. The tell us they are referred to in the Shiji or Records of the Historian by Sima Qian, and in chapter 69. here, it speaks of one thousand earthenware vessels of mold-fermented cereal grains and salty fermented soy beans.

Nowadays, whole fermented beans are used less often than they were in earlier times because many pre-made and/or pre-mashed sauces with black beans are available. Professional chefs we spoke to say their younger colleagues purchase them as black bean sauces in cans, plastic bags, bottles, or boxes while older chefs prefer them fermented and whole as they are in the package we use and show you. We rinse, mash, and mix them with soy sauce, ginger, and other desired ingredients. These same elder chefs tell us there is no need to purchase black bean and brown bean sauces because differences among them are minimal, most using the same mold, incorporating very few different seasonings and/or differences in times to ferment them. They also believe there is little difference between black bean sauce and black bean paste other than the amount of liquid left with the beans at the end of the process. However, there are differences between beans dried in the sun or in ovens, and most packaging do not specify these differences.

A related item, yellow bean sauce, can have lots of sugar added, so we suggest reading the article in Volume 20(3) titled: Fermented Li and Chiu Beverages which discusses how to try, taste, and determine differences in them and other liquids.

One can make black bean sauce by purchasing mature Leguminosae seeds; botanically known as Glycine max. The Chinese believe them neutral to cool, spicy, and a little bitter when entering the body via lung and stomach channels. They say they reduce blood cholesterol and have anti-cancer properties. They remind us that time and space are needed to ripen the beans; we have never done that.

Traditional medical practitioners recommend fermented black beans alone or in sauces. They advise their patients they are excellent when cooking fish or vegetables, and they can reduce cases of flu and headaches, relieve restlessness, ease discomfort in the chest, and help those having trouble falling asleep. hey can also increase circulation during stroke recovery. They also say they lower blood lipids and prevent future cardiovascular incidents. These practitioners advise that people with these symptoms should take two teaspoons of a black bean sauce mixed with half that amount of mint and twice that amount of minced scallions; they find them particularly effective when feeling the onset of flu symptoms.

To make black bean sauce, a friend's recipe follows; she makes it often and says it is better than any she has purchased. We tried it and agree.
Black Bean Sauce II
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 slices fresh ginger, peeled and minced
3 Tablespoons dried salted black beans
1 teaspoon granulated sugar, optional
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 cup chicken stock
2 teaspoons thick soy jam
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
2 scallions, slivered
1. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil, then the garlic and ginger. After stirring for half a minute, add the black beans and stir for another minute. Then add the sugar, rice wine, and the thin soy sauce, and stir for another minute before adding the chicken stock and the thick soy jam mixed with the cornstarch mixture.
2. Reduce the heat, simmer and stir for two more minutes. If using immediately, add the scallions. If not, set this aside; and add them when ready to use this black bean sauce.
Spare Ribs in Black bean Sauce
1 and 1/2 pounds spare ribs
2 Tablespoons fermented black beans, rinsed and mashed lightly
1 whole garlic clove, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 Tablespoon sugar
3 Tablespoons soy sauce, half thin and half dark
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1. Cut the ribs into sections, five ribs each.
2. Mix black beans, garlic, sugar, soy sauces, rice wine, and the oil and put into a plastic bag, tie it tightly with a twist-tie, and set into a large low bowl and refrigerate overnight. Turn once or twice before cooking.
3. Put the ribs into a heat-proof bowl with all the liquid, and discard the plastic bag and tie. Set this dish on a steamer rack and steam over boiling water for fifteen minutes, then reduce the heat keeping them over simmering water for one hour and ten minutes longer.
4. Cut the ribs apart and serve.
Note: The sauce can be thickened mixing one Tablespoon cornstarch and one Tablespoon cold water. Bring this to the boil and pour it over the ribs.
Fish with Black Bean Sauce
2 small fish such as snapper or trout
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 hot chili peppers, cut in half, seeded then chopped
2 Tablespoons fermented black beans, rinsed and slightly mashed, if desired
5 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and chopped
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1. Scale and clean the fish, remove the gills and entrails and discard them. Then rinse and pat the fish dry with paper towels.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add the oil and the fish and fry it on one side for two minutes, turn the fish over and do the same on the other side, then remove it to a pre-heated platter, and serve.
3. Stir in the chili peppers and the black beans, then the garlic, and stir-fry for one minute before adding the soy sauce, rice wine, salt, and sugar. Continue stirring, then return the fish to the pan, cover, and simmer for two minutes. Remove the cover, put the fish on a pre-heated platter, then bring the remaining sauce to the boil and pour it over the fish, and serve.
Bitter Melon with Black Bean Sauce
1 large or two small bitter gourds
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 Tablespoon fermented black beans, rinsed and mashed
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 whole garlic clove, peeled and minced
1 small chili pepper, seeded and chopped
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1. Peel the gourd(s), cut them in half. Discard the seeds and any pith, then slice the gourd halves crosswise into half-inch slices. Toss them with coarse salt, and let them rest for half an hour.
2. Blanch the slices in boiling water for one minute, then drain them.
3. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil, and stir-fry the garlic and chili pepper pieces for one minute, then add the black beans and the bitter gourd slices and stir well for one minute.
4. Add the soy sauces, sugar, and pepper and cover the pan and simmer for three minutes, then serve.
Yellow Eel with Black Beans
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 whole garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 slices peeled fresh ginger, minced
2 green chilies, seeded and cut into thin slivers
1 red chili, seeded and cut into thin slivers
2 Tablespoons fermented black beans
1/2 pound yellow eel, deboned and blanched with hot water, then cut into two-inch pieces
1 teaspoon mushroom soy sauce
1 teaspoon ginger juice
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
dash ground white pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 Tablespoons Shaoxing wine
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with two teaspoons cold water
1. Heat wok or fry pan, add the oil and fry the garlic and ginger for one minute, then add the chili pieces and the fermented black beans and the eel and stir-fry two minutes.
2. Add the soy sauce, ginger juice, sugar, ground pepper, sesame oil, and the wine and toss for one more minute.
3. Add the cornstarch mixture, stir until thickened, then serve.

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