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
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Put the stock on to boil. When it does, turn the heat down to the barest simmer right away.
- 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.
- 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.
- Taste the broth. If it needs a bit of salt, add some (or a teaspoon or two of soy sauce, or more to taste).
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.