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[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

I'll be upfront about Chinese black beans. They look like something that should be thrown away. They smell like they've gone off, and they may alarm even a fermented food enthusiast. By no accounts do they seem like something I want to put in my body.

But these unattractive legumes, which taste like the solidified composite of soy and fish sauces, are little nuggets of umami joy. The Italians have Parmesan; the Indians have asafoetida; the Chinese have fermented black beans. Next to some good soy sauce and a wok, they're an indispensable ingredient that can almost instantly improve your efforts at Chinese cuisine.

The "black" in their name has led to some naming confusion; black beans here refer to soy beans, fermented and heavily salted. The result of this process is a flavor at once gratingly salty, alarmingly trash-baggy, and suspiciously sweet. But all in a good way. They're intensely savory, a flavor enhancer as much as a flavor on their own.

How to Use Black Beans

As the name would suggest, black beans are the main constituent of black bean sauce, that all-too-common player in take-out menus everywhere. When the beans are treated with the heat of a wok their discordant flavors give way to harmonious complexity. They enhance the fragrance of soy sauce and rice wine and add mouthwatering intrigue to simple greens like broccoli. Their fermented qualities, so off-putting when raw, transform into a sweet balanced base note for sauces. In stir fries, they bring together a hodgepodge of ingredients into a single dish.

But they have uses beyond the wok. Black beans have an almost cheesy quality, and when you add their bracing saltiness, you more or less have Chinese Parmesan. Like Parmesan, black beans can be added in judicious quantities to meatballs or meatloaf along with minced scallions and garlic. Or you can add them to chicken soup as a finishing touch to lend some extra punch. Whatever the application, it's worth also having garlic and ginger around. Their flavors tie to black beans are as strong as carrots and celery to the French.

Beyond more or less any meat out there, black beans pair well with members of the cabbage and onion families. Don't be afraid to go beyond stir frying: Toss them with roast broccoli or add a tablespoon or two to braising leeks. Be aware that whatever you add them to will taste decidedly more like it came out of a Chinese kitchen, but that's not much of a downside.

Since black beans are semi-mummified, they have to be rehydrated before cooking. Before I start any prep I put them in a small bowl with a bit of any of the liquid I'll be using in a dish—soy sauce, rice wine, or vinegar. By the time you get to cooking, they'll be rehydrated. When you add them to a dish makes a big impact on how they flavor it. Toss them in early on for something of a background perfume, a secret ingredient to turn flavor up to 11 without making a fuss about itself. If you want the black beans to retain more of their funky flavor and texture, keep them out till the end and only give them a brief soak.

Where to Find Fermented Black Beans

Almost any Chinese grocery will carry fermented black beans in 12- to 16-ounce bags for $3 to $4. They may be near the jars of black bean sauce, which, while convenient, aren't the best substitute. Those sauces contain lots of other flavors and the funky tang of soy bean never comes through that strong. If you don't have a Chinese grocery nearby, you can pick them up off Amazon at $12 for 12 ounces.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.

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