Chinese Fermented Black Beans

A staple of the Chinese pantry, fermented black soy beans, also known as salted black beans, add a giant helping of flavor to a variety of foods.

Some people seem to think that they are “stinky” or overly salty, but I don’t know what they are talking about–I love the smell of them and don’t find them to be offensive at all. The brand that I use has ginger added to them, which adds a tiny whisper of floral fragrance to the earthy, salty scent of the beans. It is a mysterious fragrance, reminiscent of ripe cheese or newly tilled, rich humus in a spring garden, and it never fails to perk up my appetite. Every time I smell it, my mouth waters, because I know that something good is about to happen to my tastebuds.

I am told that some folks soak them in cold water then drain them about a half an hour before using them to remove the excessive salt, but I never have seen that to be a necessary step in using them. I just crush them lightly with a spoon before throwing them into the hot oil in the wok before anything else goes in to cook. This releases the flavor of the beans into the oil so it carries to all parts of the dish.

Fermented black bean sauce, which I have also used, is a different condiment altogether. I found after experimenting with both, that I prefer the beans themselves for several reasons. For one thing, they are more versatile; you can change around the other flavors that you mix them with to create completely new dishes, while the black bean sauce will put a singular flavor stamp on whatever you cook with it. Another reason I prefer them is that most of the black bean sauces I have come across use a lot of oil and salt and it will make any dish that is cooked with it overly heavy, as well as being very salty in flavor.

Fermented black beans are strongly flavored, so they are classically paired with other strong aromatic ingredients such as garlic, scallion, ginger and chile. Garlic is my favorite partner for black beans; the sharp tang of the garlic is the top note that rides the crest of the darker wave of black bean. Perhaps because my first exposure to black beans was in ma po tofu, I like to have the fiery kiss of chile peppers involved in most dishes that I season with black beans, but I will restrain myself if I have to. It doesn’t do to use too many strong flavors all at once–instead of enhancing the natural flavors of the main ingredients, it can mask them and make what could have been a delightful dish into a muddy mess.

This evening, I used black beans with garlic, scallions and a single Thai bird chile to season a simple stir fry featuring fresh pork loin and the first string beans from the Farmer’s market. An uncomplicated dish that I usually serve with steamed jasmine rice for a plain supper, it can be cooked with many variations, but I believe that the addition of black beans was an inspired choice that will appear on our table more often. It added a lovely complication to the usually clean, uncluttered flavors of the dish that a client of mine once likened to the cooking of Susanna Foo. (I was extremely flattered by this comparison, and I still blush when I think about Gala’s praise of my Chinese dishes.)

Pork and String Beans With Fermented Black Beans


1/2 pound lean pork loin chop, cut into thin 1″by 1/4″ strips
1/8 cup Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 pound fresh green beans stringed and rinsed
boiling water for blanching green beans beans
peanut oil for stir frying
2 teaspoons fermented black beans
4 large cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
3 scallions, white parts thinly sliced
1 Thai bird chile, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon raw sugar
2 tablespoons chicken broth or stock
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
green tops to scallions cut on the diagonal in 1″ lengths


Toss pork with wine and cornstarch. Marinate while preparing other ingredients, or at least for twenty minutes.

Blanch string beans in boiling water for one or two minutes, until tender-crisp and very brilliant green. Drain and rinse with cold water, then pat with paper towels until they are as dry as possible.

Lightly crush fermented black beans with the back of a spoon.

Heat wok over high heat; when it smokes, add enough oil to stir fry in. Throw in the fermented black beans, garlic, white part of scallion and chile, and stir fry for one minute, until quite fragrant.

Lift meat out of marinade (reserve marinade) and add to wok, flattening it into a single layer on the bottom of wok with the back of a wok shovel. Allow to sit still on the bottom of the wok for one minute to begin browning on one side, then stir fry vigorously. As meat begins to look mostly cooked, add the reserved marinade, soy sauce, sugar and broth.

Add string beans, and stir fry until the sauce thickens and clings to the meat and beans. This is a fairly dry dish. Add scallion tops, stir to heat through, drizzle with sesame oil and serve with steamed rice.


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  1. I have always loved string beans, but while traveling in South Africa, I discovered they are a wonderful snack–crisp and refreshing. I am already counting down until I can go to the farmers market (8 days).

    Where in Athens (or maybe you go to Columbus) do you buy the ingredients for your Asian cooking?

    Comment by Court — June 27, 2005 #

  2. I eat raw green beans, too and always have. In fact, my Grandma always called me her little rabbit girl because I was prone to eating any garden produce raw, even if most people insisted in needed to be cooked. Like green beans and corn, for example. Or turnips.

    As for Asian markets–we have a really good one here in Athens called the New Market oat 726 East State Street. They have most everything I need to make various Asian foods, but that isn’t all–they carry nearly every ingredient folks in our international community would need to make their homey comfort foods. They have Middle Eastern stuff, European, Indian and Latin American groceries in addition to Chinese, Thai, Japanese and Korean. It is really cool. I can even get bitter melon fresh there about every other week if I come on produce day–Friday.

    When I am in Columbus, I go to CAM–the Columbus Asian Market down on Bethel Road. It is a grocery store sized place, very neat and clean with a huge produce section that almost always has fresh water chestnuts, and always has bitter melon, pea shoots, long beans and various herbs. They also have a large meat department and a fresh seafood department including live fish. It is a great place to visit.

    Across the parking lot is the Hometown Oriental Deli and Carry-Out where we stop for homestyle Cantonese goodies like roast pork noodle soup, congee and noodles with spicy meat sauce. It is a great place, and you can buy char sui (roast pork), braised pig belly, soy sauce chicken, white cut chicken and roast ducks and ribs by the pound to take home. A great place.

    Are you in Athens yet? If you are, give me an email at, and we can try and meet up at the market or out at Casa for lunch. And if you want to get together and go with us to Columbus (I go there to teach once a month or so at Sur La Table–my next trip will be July 13), that would be awesome!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 27, 2005 #

  3. I just picked up a container of fermented black beans on the way home from Aikido. The same brand as in the picture, actually.

    Anyway, I feel somewhat silly asking this about ingrediants which are heavily salted or pickled and have PRESERVED right on the label already, but are there any particular concerns for storing them? I’ve got almost two years, going by the expiration date, but should I transfer them to a jar when I open them?

    Comment by Scott — April 17, 2006 #

  4. Actually, nevermind: I opened them and realized the packaging had never been airtight to begin with. I’m sure they’ll be fine.

    Comment by Scott — April 17, 2006 #

  5. They are fine, Scott–As you noticed. I have recently started using a different brand–one that is packed in cellophane packets in small amounts–about a cup per packet or so. I will post a picture of them with a recipe soon, so you can try this brand–I like them even better than the ones pictured here.

    They tend to be more moist and have a fresher taste.

    Not that there is anything wrong with the brand I was using and you just bought–I just like the other better, after using them both in the same recipes.

    Comment by Barbara — April 17, 2006 #

  6. I can smell that black bean now with the steamed fish!

    Comment by Wok — October 5, 2006 #

  7. I never noticed this post, I don’t think, until you recently linked back to it. That’s precisely the brand of fermented black beans I use, and actually, this dish looks like a perfect dinner to me. Thank you for the recipe! I will be sure to try it out.

    Comment by Danielle — January 9, 2007 #

  8. The beans really give a good zing to the pork and green beans. It is one of our favorite quick dinners here–let me know how you like it.

    Comment by Barbara — January 9, 2007 #

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