Long considered vital in East Asian cuisines, umami is the “savoury” taste that has only recently been seized upon by chefs in the West and China’s salted and fermented black beans are full of it. Caused by receptors of glutamic acid and its variants (the most infamous being MSG), umami effectively represents our tongue’s way of detecting protein in our diet. This savoury taste is found in mushrooms or meat as well as fermented foods like cheese. While in the west using meat stock or a generous cheese topping is our way of making food more inexplicably tasty, in Asian cuisines it’s done using a few specific ingredients like shiitake mushrooms or kombu, a seaweed rich in umami that is used to make stocks in Japanese and Korean cuisines. Or it’s achieved through fermentation and the products of it — soy sauce, fish sauce, miso and salt-pickled vegetables. Black soy beans, salted and fermented until wrinkly and slightly pungent are another that perhaps we are more familiar from the popular Chinese takeaway dish of beef in black been sauce.
Not to be confused with the black beans used in Latin American cooking, Chinese black beans are black soy beans that are salted and aged. Fermentation produces a complex and rich flavour, much like it does in soy sauce, earthy, savoury with the same smoky and fruity elements you might expect in dark chocolate or red wine (another product of fermentation of course). Soy beans in various processed forms are a common flavouring across Asia: most obviously soy sauce, but also Japanese miso and its siblings, Korean doenjang and Chinese yellow bean paste; the love-it-or-hate-it Japanese condiment natto is made similarly, from fermenting yellow soy beans until sticky and shiny. The salting also preserves the beans indefinitely, with cookery writer Fuchsia Dunlop noting that those in a Chinese museum exhibit look perfectly edible even after 2000 years. They need quick rinse of excess salt and a gentle crushing or mashing before adding to a dish; TV’s Ching-he Huang, who names them her desert island ingredient in her book Chinese Food Made Easy, recommends storing a couple of tablespoons in a jar with some Shaoxing wine to add a splash of savouriness whenever they’re required.
A small bag of the beans will last a long time and costs little over a pound in a Chinese supermarket — much better value for money than a jarred black bean sauce. Whilst very easy to use, I’ll admit I’ve struggled to find recipes in cookbooks and online for anything other than the familiar stir fry, but it’s a versatile sauce that is served with all vegetables, meat, poultry and seafood and my personal favourite is with clams or mussels. But just as other Asian ingredients have seen new applications by experimental Western chefs (kimchi topped burgers and miso apple pie for example) I see no reason that black beans can’t get the same treatment. I can think of plenty of opportunities to experiment, perhaps stirring a spoonful of these beans into a rich game stew or minced beef dish, that go beyond the garlic, ginger and chilli combination of a traditional black bean sauce.