One-Pot Wonders

Country Style Vegetable Soup with Fermented Black Beans and Tofu

February  5, 2013
3 Ratings
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 recommended a tiny hole in the wall on edge of Chinatown. (Good information like that can be the gift of a lifetime. We still go there regularly, counting it among our all-time favorite places to eat in the gastronomic paradise.) 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

  • 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) or 1/12 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
  • Handful of cilantro leaves
  • Chinese spicy chili oil, to taste (optional)
  • 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)
In This Recipe
  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. See note, below, 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, 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; set those pieces aside in a separate container.
  5. 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. (If using broccoli florets, make sure they're fairly small, and put them with the napa cabbage leaves.)
  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. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Taste the broth. If it needs seasoning, add a teaspoon or two of soy sauce - or more to taste.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Enjoy! ;o)
  13. To cook the tofu on the top of the stove: 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. 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.
  14. As with most of my soups, I view a recipe like this as merely a template. 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.
  3. 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.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Ziggy
  • AntoniaJames
  • Brussels Sprouts for Breakfast
    Brussels Sprouts for Breakfast
  • healthierkitchen
  • Madhuja

Recipe by: AntoniaJames

When I'm not working (negotiating transactions for internet companies), or outside enjoying the gorgeous surroundings here in Boulder County, CO, I'm likely to be cooking, shopping for food, planning my next culinary experiment, or researching, voraciously, whatever interests me. In my kitchen, no matter what I am doing -- and I actually don't mind cleaning up -- I am deeply grateful for having the means to create, share with others and eat great food. Life is very good. ;o)

    17 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
    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?
    Author Comment
    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.
    Author Comment
    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!
    Author Comment
    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!
    Author Comment
    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.
    Author Comment
    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!
    Author Comment
    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.