According to Bill Shurtleff at The Soyfoods Center (see the entry for Soyfoods), this fermented, salted, soft black soybean is the oldest recorded soyfood in history, the noble ancestor of miso and soy sauce. It is a rather remarkable new look at a humble black bean, which I have always thrown unthinkingly into sauces and scattered on top of steaming fish and until recently did not even realize was a soybean. Soybeans, I know now, can wear black seed coats as well as yellow ones.
Packaged in heavy plastic bags or round cardboard boxes and typically labeled Salted Black Beans, this popular Chinese seasoning is also known as Chinese black beans, salted beans, fermented black beans, and occasionally ginger black beans. The process is generally the same for all brands: boiling or simmering black soybeans until soft, inoculating them with an Aspergillus oryzae mold, the covering them with a brining solution for six months, with shreds of ginger or orange peel or a dash of five-spice powder occasionally added to season the beans in the final soaking stage.
I prefer salted black beans that are seasoned with ginger and avoid the sort seasoned with five-spice powder. The latter is very strong-tasting and if used for the preceding recipes will destroy the balance of flavors. If they are all you have on hand and there is no time to purchase a new bag, then wash the beans in cool water to remove the five-spice flavor, and add a bit more salt to the dish to make up for what was washed away.
When shopping for salted black beans, you will need to look at the list of ingredients to tell which sort is which, as the label on the package invariably reads Salted Black Bean. If you are looking for the variety seasoned with ginger, you will see the tiny, black tufts of ginger scattered throughout the beans. My first choice is Pearl River Brand in a round yellow cardboard box. If unavailable, use Mee Chun brand, widely distributed in several size bags.
Salted black beans should feel soft and supple through the bag when you buy them. Once opened, store them in an airtight container at room temperature, away from light, heat, and moisture. They keep indefinitely.
As you may already have noted in the recipes, I do not wash salted black beans, as is common. It is a practice I have never understood and to which the only actual answer I was ever given was that of a very old Chinese man, who looked at me quizzically from beneath his bushy brows and said, “Why, it’s to make them less black!” It does not make sense to me to wash them when you are adding salt to the dish anyway (which is the consistent practice of the bean washers, so far as I have observed). So I simply save myself the extra step and count in their saltiness when I am calculating the other seasonings for a dish. The old man forgive me, all the recipes in this book are based on unwashed beans, which will not taste salty once cooked but will indeed be very black!
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.