when i was in university, there was a chinese food truck that sat on elm st., around the corner from the main hall, and at the time it didn’t seem scary to get lunch from there several times a week. in retrospect…sketchy? yes. delicious? YES. it was from this truck that i had my first taste of rice noodles in black bean sauce. i hated it.
all of it. the black bean sauce was far too subtle for either what i was expecting or what i was used to. and the noodles were unlike the rice noodles i’d had before (the thin, al dente sticks found in south asian cuisine), they were sort of gummy and slippery. have i enticed you to try this recipe yet? i know–but stay with me.
i was intrigued enough by my lunch partners’ common appreciation for this dish to try it a few more times. what was i missing? once i got past my expectations and stopped comparing it to other things, i finally tasted the appeal. it was actually the subtleties that were so great. by my second serving, i was enjoying the totally distinct flavour of this black bean sauce, rich in its own way without being overwhelming (the way you might expect something fermented to be) and the broad, plain noodles were the that perfect thing to cling to the thick sauce and let its quiet taste shine. i became hooked, ordering those noodles every chance i got, both from that truck and at restaurants. black bean spareribs (the tiny pork short ribs) became my favourite dish at dim sum.
but it would still be years before i figured out how to recreate the flavour at home. jarred black bean sauce is tasty but it’s not the flavour found in those restaurant meals. that flavour comes from the fermented black beans themselves. they are much easier to find in your chinese grocery store than sichuan pepper, which i’ve also started adding to many stir frys. they add a luciousness to sauces that i have a hard time describing. i hope you will try them and see for yourself why they are wonderful, as well as discover the difference between store-bought black bean sauce and this very simple homemade version.
2 lbs (about 900 g) fresh rice noodles (if yours are in sheets, cut them into 1/2-inch ribbons)
1 tbs corn starch (or tapioca starch), dissolved in 1 cup water
2 tbs fermented black beans, roughly chopped
1/4 tsp sichuan pepper, ground or crushed
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs chinese cooking wine
1/4 tsp salt, plus 1/4 tsp
3 tbs peanut or vegetable oil
1/2 medium red onion, sliced
1 bunch baby bok choy (or pak choy, or other asian green), stems sliced and separated from leaves
2 cups sliced, fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded (or crimini mushrooms)
in a large bowl, briefly immerse rice noodles in hot water, separating noodles with your fingers. remove noodles from water and shake off as much water as possible. lay noodles on a clean dishcloth and spread them out to dry.
meanwhile, add the dissolved cornstarch to a bowl, and add the black beans, sichuan pepper, garlic, soy sauce, chinese cooking wine and 1/4 tsp salt. mix well and set aside.
heat a wok or a large skillet over medium-high heat. allow it to get hot before adding 2 tbs of oil. let the oil heat up before adding the noodles. (if the wok and then the oil are allowed to heat well, the noodles are less apt to stick.) add the noodles and fry, stirring constantly but making sure they fry against the oiled surface too. after a couple of minutes they will become softer and slightly shiny; you can also taste one to check for done-ness. at this point, remove them from the wok and set aside in a bowl.
add the remaining tbs of oil to the wok and allow it to heat. add the onions and stir-fry for 2 minutes. add the bok choy stems and mushrooms and fry for another 2 minutes. then add the leaves and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 tsp of salt. stir to combine well. with your utensil, make a hole in the centre of the wok or pan, pushing the vegetables to the sides. stir the cornstarch mixture and add to the centre. allow it to cook against the heat of the pan for a minute (stirring if you have a well of liquid in the wok). then mix the sauce and vegetables together, add the noodles back to the wok and stir thoroughly so the sauce coats everything evenly. serve hot.