Country Style Vegetable Soup with Fermented Black Beans and Tofu

By • February 5, 2013 • 16 Comments



Author Notes: I found inspiration for this soup in a dish I first tasted shortly after I arrived in San Francisco quite some time ago. I had moved here from New York City, where I was told by some of the partners at the international law firm where I worked that I was moving to a “gastronomic wasteland.” Those guys could not have been more wrong -- but that’s another story. In all fairness, one of the partners, who loved restaurants and was one of the most adventurous eaters I’d ever met, directed me to an unassuming hole in the wall on Kearney Street, for what he described as the best Chinese food he’d ever eaten, in any city. Mr. T and I wasted no time in finding the place. We’ve been going there regularly ever since. Anyway, the dish that inspired this recipe, a fragrant, soupy concoction called “Country Style Vegetables,” introduced me those many years ago to fermented black beans. So, you’re probably looking at the list of ingredients and thinking, “Hm. Bean curd, bok choy, noodles, scallions, black beans. So what.” Well, as in most soups, the magic lies in the broth. I’ve made this one a bit more flavorful than the sauce in Henry’s dish. They seem to use chicken stock, black beans and garlic. I created this vegan alternative, which I like better for a soup. It’s simple food, but satisfying, especially on a cold, dreary day in winter. And it can be doubled or tripled for a crowd. Enjoy! ;o)AntoniaJames

Food52 Review: Upon first read, I simply knew this soup would be good. Due in equal measure to meticulous description and a great ingredient list (all my favorite aromatics, hearty Asian greens, and the elusive salted black bean), I could not wait to try it. The fermented bean gives this soup a pleasantly sour, almost smoky depth, which is complemented by the fragrant aromatics and slightly bitter edge of mustardy bok choy. It builds a lot of flavor in a short amount of time, making this warming and delicious soup one that my family will enjoy countless times – even on a weeknight.gingerroot

Serves 4, for dinner

The Soup

  • 4 cups aromatic broth (see recipe below)
  • 14 - 16 ounces firm tofu
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil, preferably the fragrant Chinese kind
  • 1 small head napa cabbage – about 1 ¼ pound
  • 2 small heads of bok choy (4 to 5 inches in length)
  • 6 scallions, white and light green parts, about 2 inches in length, sliced lengthwise
  • 1 - 2 tablespoons doenjang, or if you don't care whether this is vegan, 1 tablespoon high quality fish sauce (I highly recommend Red Boat.)
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon organic brown rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons fermented (also called “salted”) black beans
  • Salt or soy sauce to taste (I use about 2 teaspoons of soy sauce, but be careful. This will vary with the saltiness of your fish sauce.)
  • 6 ounces thin rice or bean vermicelli
  • 1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
  • Handful of cilantro leaves
  • Chinese spicy chili oil, to taste (optional)
  1. Prepare the tofu: cut the tofu into equal sized rectangles. (I cut crosswise, as if slicing a cake to fill between layers, then cut those rectangles each into four pieces.) Put the tofu slices between two cutting boards; then put some heavy but stable objects, such as large unopened cans, a stone mortar and pestle, etc., on the top cutting board to press the liquid out of the tofu.
  2. Prepare the vegetables: thinly slice the top half of the napa cabbage, then thoroughly rinse and drain. Put those leafy pieces into a container. Then thinly slice the rest, which will consist of the large, hard white middle, and rinse and drain them. Then set those pieces aside in a separate container.
  3. Cut the bok choy in half, crosswise, and rinse the dark green leafy pieces. Shake off any excess water, and put in the container with the soft leafy pieces of the napa cabbage. Cut off the hard bottom of each bok choy, then remove what’s left and wash. Stack those hard stems and slice into thirds or quarters, lengthwise. Put those pieces into the same container as the hard, mostly white pieces of napa cabbage.
  4. After the tofu has been pressed for about 20 minutes (or longer, of course), drain and cut the rectangles into smaller, easier-to-eat rectangles. Pat dry.
  5. Heat a large skillet and then add the peanut oil. When it spits when you flick a drop of water on it, add the tofu. Cook over medium heat, resisting the urge to turn the tofu pieces for at least two minutes. You want them to get a bit crusty, so they’ll hold up better in the soup. After two minutes or so, turn the tofu pieces over and cook for another minute or so. When lightly browned, remove from the pan.
  6. While the tofu is cooking, start making the noodles. Cook them according to the instructions on the package. Once you drain them, toss immediately with sesame oil and divide between the bowls in which you’ll be plating the soup. Cover them if you won’t be serving within a few minutes.
  7. Put the stock on to boil. When it does, turn the heat down to the barest simmer right away.
  8. When the tofu is finished browning, remove it. In the same skillet, over medium heat, cook the hard portions of the napa cabbage and bok choy for about five minutes, along with the scallion pieces, turning frequently.
  9. Add the cooked napa cabbage and bok choy pieces, the reserved leafy pieces of cabbage and bok choy, the doenjang or fish sauce, brown sugar, fermented black beans, and vinegar to the stock. If using doenjang, thin it with a half cup of broth before adding to the pot. Heat the soup back up to a low boil, and cook for two to three minutes.
  10. Taste the broth. If it needs a bit of salt, add some (or a teaspoon or two of soy sauce, or more to taste).
  11. Shortly before serving, add the cilantro leaves and the cooked tofu and cook just enough to heat the tofu through. (If you add it sooner, it will soak up too much broth.)
  12. Ladle the hot soup over the noodles in the soup plates. Give each bowl a good stir. Let your guests stir in hot chili oil, to taste.
  13. Enjoy! ;o)

Fermented Black Bean Scented Vegetable Broth

  • ¼ cup fermented black beans (also called “Salted Black Beans”), coarsely chopped
  • Dark green tops of 6 scallions, coarsely chopped
  • 1” piece of fresh ginger, unpeeled and coarsely chopped
  • ½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro stems
  • 6 cloves of garlic, smashed (no need to peel them)
  1. Put all of the ingredients into a heavy pot with 6 cups of water. Simmer for about 30 minutes, then let stand for at least another 30 minutes.
  2. Strain the broth. You should have about 4 cups. Don’t worry if you have less; just make up the difference with a bit of filtered water. If you have much more than 4 cups, simmer it for a while longer to reduce it.
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Comments (16) Questions (0)

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5 months ago Dawn

I really want to try this but couldn't find fermented black beans. Can I use black bean sauce?

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5 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Yes, but be careful with the seasonings and garlic, etc., as black ban sauces tend to have a variety of other ingredients in them. If the sauce smells of garlic, you may want to dial back the fresh that's called for in the stock. Similarly, you should add less soy sauce and fish sauce until you've added the black bean sauce and simmered the soup. I'd probably leave the black bean sauce out of the stock, as it could well overwhelm the other flavors. Please let me know how it turns out! ;o)

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6 months ago andrea.muraskin

This was quite tasty and satisfying, though I'm not entirely sure it was worth all the time and effort. I'm a bit of a slow cook, but it took me at least 2 hours including the broth. Added some sriracha sauce and a little more fish sauce at the end, really added some nice punch to the flavors.

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over 1 year ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Just an update . . . to make this vegan, you can also use doenjang, which is Korea's equivalent to miso, but it's much richer tasting, with a deep flavor with equivalent (actually, higher) levels of umami as fish sauce. I've been using doenjang in just about every savory dish I've been making lately. Try it! Make sure you get a brand that does not contain sugar or other sweeteners, or MSG. ;o)

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over 1 year ago Brussels Sprouts for Breakfast

This looks fantastic. Can't wait to try it!

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over 1 year ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Thank you, BSfB. I hope you do! ;o)

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over 1 year ago healthierkitchen

this looks terrific! I havent seen a broth like this before and I'm anxious to try it!

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over 1 year ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

HK, Thanks for your kind words! You will love it -- especially the ROI of time in light of results. Get the broth going, prep the other ingredients, don't sweat it if the broth doesn't get the full rest, if you need to get dinner on the table. Or make the broth in the morning, or on another night while you're cooking something else. The stock requires about 2 minutes of active time. ;o)

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over 1 year ago Madhuja

I am always on the lookout for good vegetable soups and this one sounds absolutely delicious! I've never had fermented black bean before, but I cannot wait to try it!

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over 1 year ago gingerroot

Looks and sounds amazing, AJ. I can't wait to try this.

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over 1 year ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Thank you, gingerroot. I'd be honored if you did. ;o)

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over 1 year ago sdebrango

Suzanne is a trusted source on General Cooking.

I just saw this, its gorgeous. Love the aromatic broth and tofu. Beautifully done.

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over 1 year ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Thanks so much, sdebrango. I'm making another batch tomorrow! ;o)

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over 1 year ago susan g

This goes right to the top of my list of what's next, as soon as I can get the greens. (Vegan requires the vegan fish sauce I get at A. Dong Market, though.) Looks like a gift this winter!

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over 1 year ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

I hope you do try it, susan g. And yes, I forgot that the fish sauce disqualifies it as vegan. I'll edit the recipe as soon as it's unlocked after the testing period. I'm interested in the vegan fish sauce that you mention. What is the brand? I'd love to try it! (I'm not a vegan, but it seems like a great thing to have on hand for when I'm cooking for vegetarians and vegans.) Thanks so much. ;o)

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over 1 year ago susan g

Today was a 'cold, dreary day in winter' here in New England, with over 12" of snow. As you said, good choice for tonight's dinner - thanks for a recipe we'll repeat. The 'fish' sauce is labeled 'Vegetarian Instant Fish Sauce' (Nuoc Mam Chay Pha San), made in Vietnam, distributed by Domega International Co., Ltd (in Brooklyn. I had Chinese Black Rice Noodles - nice color element.