The very first time I ever ate black beans I was about eleven years old. My mother was experimenting. Having bought a jar of black beans from I know not where she was making beef and black bean stir fry - one of our favourite dishes at the Chinese restaurant near to home. We loved going there for dinner as everything seemed more exotic than suburban Australia outside -in part because some tables had a lazy susan in the centre. Surely the height of sophistication?The waiters would pack this centre circle with lots of steaming bowls of food and we would turn it round one way and back again, endlessly chasing the last tasty morsels. Prawn crackers, sweet and sour pork, ham and chicken rolls, chow mein - all of these I first ate at what I think was called Dion's - though more likely the Happy Dragon or some such.
So one Sunday my mother decided to experiment and make her own version of beef and black bean. She has a highly tuned palate and has always been happy to turn her hand to any dish without necessarily needing to check a recipe for guidance. So there was garlic and ginger and thin slices of steak and, rare for her, a moment of uncertainty when it came to the star ingredient. Figuring perhaps that fortune favours the brave she tipped in the whole jar and briskly mixed them through. What resulted was so incredibly salty and pungent - the very definition of mouth puckering! Undeterred - as ever - she bought another jar and made a few enquiries about the best way to use them. The next beef and black bean was fab.
I've cooked with them on and off over the years - there's usually a half used pack in the fridge. I love their deep earthy complex taste that works so well with other strong flavours, the pungent smell that promises much and delivers in spades. Made by fermenting soybeans in garlic, salt and a host of other spices they add an utterly distinct taste that cannot be replicated any other way. Though some recipes suggest they need to be soaked for anything up to an hour I find a quick rinse under the cold tap is really all that is needed before mashing them lightly and adding to a hot pan. Saturday night we were having mussels - in that I had bought them but not with any particular plan. Decided to go with spicy - and this was the fabulous result.
Mussels with Chilli and Black Bean Sauce
1kg mussels, scrubbed and picked over for dead ones with open shells
2 tablespoons peanut or other vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tablespoon of nuoc cham (chilli sauce) or 1 birdseye chilli finely chopped
1 tablespoon fermented black beans, rinsed and crushed lightly
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
100ml dry white wine
Handful of thai basil leaves
Once the mussels are clean heat the oil in a large, lidded heavy based pan. When it's hot add garlic, chilli ginger and black beans and stir for a minute or two till the mix is fragrant the tip in the wine. Bring to the boil and simmer to reduce the liquid by about a third.
With the heat on full add the mussels and put the lid onto the pot. Cook for five or six minutes, shaking the pan occasionally but keeping the lid on. After five minutes check the shells have opened - I can cheat in this as my pan has a glass lid! When the shells have opened quickly stir through the thai basil.
Serve in deep bowls with some crusty bread and an empty bowl for the used shells.
Thinking about it this would probably also be really good over some softened rice noodles though the use of fingers and shells would still be a requirement.