One-Pot Wonders

Country Style Vegetable Soup with Fermented Black Beans and Tofu

February  5, 2013
3 Ratings
  • Prep time 15 minutes
  • Cook time 30 minutes
  • Serves 4, for dinner
Author Notes

I found inspiration for this soup in a dish I first tasted shortly after I arrived in San Francisco nearly three decades ago. Before moving here from New York, one of the partners at my firm there exhorted us to try Henry's Hunan, which was then a tiny hole in the wall on the edge of San Francisco's Chinatown. (Good information like that is truly the gift of a lifetime, isn't it? We went there regularly throughout the 32 years we lived in the Bay Area, counting it among our all-time favorite places to eat in that gastronomic paradise, or anywhere, for that matter.) The dish that inspired this recipe, a fragrant, soupy concoction called “Country Style Vegetables,” introduced me those many years ago to fermented black beans. They transform this soup. I've drafted this as a vegan recipe, but please feel free to use chicken stock if you prefer. Also, if you don't have doenjang (Korean fermented soybean paste) you can use red miso instead, added at the very end, or fish sauce if you don't care whether it's vegan, or just add more soy sauce, a bit at a time, to taste. This is simple food, but satisfying, Enjoy! ;o) —AntoniaJames

Test Kitchen Notes

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

What You'll Need
  • 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) or 1 1/2 cups broccoli florets
  • 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
  • Soy sauce to taste (I use about 2 teaspoons of soy sauce, but be careful. The black beans are salty, as are the fish sauce and doenjang, if using.)
  • 6 ounces thin rice or bean vermicelli
  • 1 tablespoon dark sesame oil, plus a couple more tablespoons for tossing the noodles, if necessary
  • Handful of cilantro leaves
  • Chinese spicy chili oil, to taste (optional)
  • Fresh lime juice or nice quality rice vinegar, to taste
  • 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. The Soup
  2. Cook the tofu: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the tofu lengthwise into four pieces, then cut each of those into generous bite-sized squares or rectangles. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet and put into the oven. You don't need to wait for it to heat all the way before putting them in.) Bake for 15 - 25 minutes, depending on how hot the oven is when you start baking. Or, if you have more time and/or want to make the tofu ahead, see my note below in Step 10. I've also added a note, (Step 11) if you want to cook the tofu on the top of the stove. You should do that pan frying right before you're ready to start cooking the vegetables.
  3. Make the stock. (See instructions below.)
  4. Prepare the vegetables: thinly slice the top half of the napa cabbage, and the large green ends of the bok choy (or broccoli florets, if using), then thoroughly rinse and drain. Put those leafy pieces into a container. Then trim and thinly slice the rest, which will consist of the large, harder white bits (or the broccoli stems, if using). Rinse and drain them; set aside in a separate container.
  5. 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.
  6. Cook the vegetables: Heat a large skillet and then add the peanut oil. Cook the hard portions of the napa cabbage and bok choy for about five minutes, along with the scallion pieces, turning frequently.
  7. Add to the drained broth the cooked napa cabbage and bok choy pieces, the reserved leafy pieces of cabbage and bok choy (or broccoli florets, if using), the doenjang or fish sauce (or a couple teaspoons of soy sauce, if not using either of those), 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. (If using red miso, add it at the very end, right before serving, thinning it with a cup or so of the hot broth.) Heat the soup back up to a low boil, and cook for 2-3 minutes.
  8. Taste the broth. If it needs seasoning, add a teaspoon or two of soy sauce - or more to taste.
  9. Shortly before serving, add the cilantro leaves (reserving a few for garnish) and the cooked tofu. Simmer it just enough to heat the tofu through. (If you add it sooner, it will soak up too much broth.) Turn off the heat and drizzle in the sesame oil and lime juice or rice wine vinegar, to taste.
  10. Ladle the hot soup over the noodles in the soup plates. Give each bowl a good stir. Garnish with the reserved whole cilantro leaves. Let your guests stir in hot chili oil, to taste. Enjoy! ;o)
  11. Note re prepping the tofu for this (or many other uses) ahead, or if you have more time while making this soup: Some years ago, I started using the technique suggested by Andrea Nguyen, a real expert on so many things, for prepping tofu for cooking. Simply cover tofu cubes or whatever shape you want in a bowl or skillet with boiling water to which you've added a bit of salt. Let it sit for at least 15 minutes. I then pop it into the oven to dry it out and firm it up, so it gets a lovely light gold crust around the edges. I do this with 2 blocks of tofu at a time, popping it into the fridge for use in stir-fries, soups like this one, soba, grain or rice bowls, etc. Doing this gives the tofu a lightly seasoned taste and a lovely texture (firm on the outside, slightly creamy on the inside), and the tofu cubes last 5-6 days, tightly covered. I generally don't embrace the hyperbole so common in food writing these days, but this prep tip has indeed been a game changer in my kitchen.
  12. To cook the tofu on the top of the stove, first, the way I do it now - a bit lazier than cooking in oil, but super quick: Cut the tofu into bite sized pieces. Put into a large non-stick skillet and cook, flipping occasionally, until the pieces are somewhat dry and firm. Or, the more labor intensive way, for people who like their tofu fried: Cut the tofu into equal sized rectangles. (I cut crosswise, as if slicing a cake to fill between layers, then cut each of 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. Let rest while you prep your vegetables. Then, 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.
  13. Feel free to improvise with this soup. Depending on what's on hand, you can use whatever vegetables you like -- kale or standard green cabbage instead of bok choy and/or napa cabbage, sugar snap peas or regular string beans, cut on the diagonal into one-inch pieces, julienned carrots for color - whatever you like. Just make sure to put the harder vegetables into the pot first, adding the more delicate ones at the very end, to ensure the best texture and color. ;o)
  1. Fermented Black Bean Scented Vegetable Broth
  2. Put all of the ingredients into a heavy pot with 6 cups of water. Simmer for about 15 minutes, then let stand for another 15 minutes, or more, if you have the time. You can also make this stock in an Instant Pot or other pressure cooker. Give yourself a jump on this by heating the water in a kettle (electric kettles are super efficient, perfect for this) while you gather and prep the stock ingredients. Cook on high pressure for 5-10 minutes; manually release the pressure when you're ready to assemble the soup.
  3. Strain the broth. You should have about 4 cups (you may a bit more, if using a pressure cooker, and that's okay). If you have less, don’t worry; 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.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Ziggy
  • AntoniaJames
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  • healthierkitchen
  • gingerroot

Recipe by: AntoniaJames

See problem, solve problem. Ask questions; question answers. Disrupt, with kindness, courtesy and respect. ;o)

18 Reviews

emcsull March 8, 2018
would you do the tofu differently now ?
emcsull March 8, 2018
I read the water soaking method not long ago, wondering if you would use that
AntoniaJames March 1, 2021
Yes! That's what I normally do these days - prepping and baking until just dry two blocks of tofu at a time, when I have the oven on anyway for other things. Then I pop them in the fridge and use for stir fries, grain/rice bowls for lunch, with soba, etc. I'm going to add that suggestion as a note to the recipe. ;o)
Ziggy January 21, 2018
I used my own stock but made the soup portion of this with some added tahini for body, more black beans to make up for the different stock and most deliciously, sichuan peppercorns for their numbing effect. It was magical and I definitely recommend this!
Dawn February 18, 2014
I really want to try this but couldn't find fermented black beans. Can I use black bean sauce?
AntoniaJames February 18, 2014
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)
andrea.muraskin February 2, 2014
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.
AntoniaJames April 10, 2013
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)
Brussels S. March 14, 2013
This looks fantastic. Can't wait to try it!
AntoniaJames March 15, 2013
Thank you, BSfB. I hope you do! ;o)
healthierkitchen February 25, 2013
this looks terrific! I havent seen a broth like this before and I'm anxious to try it!
AntoniaJames February 25, 2013
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)
Madhuja February 21, 2013
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!
gingerroot February 8, 2013
Looks and sounds amazing, AJ. I can't wait to try this.
AntoniaJames February 9, 2013
Thank you, gingerroot. I'd be honored if you did. ;o)
susan G. February 5, 2013
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!
AntoniaJames February 9, 2013
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)
susan G. February 9, 2013
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.