Grocery Ninja: Salted Black Beans

Editor's note: You might remember Wan Yan Ling from her summertime series Snapshots from Asia. Ling's back in the U.S. and will be bringing us new snapshots, this time from various ethnic grocery stores and under the rubric "Grocery Ninja," which we quite liked here at Serious Eats HQ. Here's the first of what will be a weekly column. Enjoy! —Adam

The day I moved into my new home in Providence, Rhode Island, my heart nearly stopped. I was poking around in the kitchen cabinets, looking for something to munch on while the general clean-up operation was taking place. I had high hopes for crackers or some such, but what I found were mouse droppings. Lots and lots of mouse droppings. Not being at all used to mice—I have lived in tiny apartments high up in the air my entire life—I was even more freaked to find, seconds later, what I thought were the droppings of a giant, mutant rodent. They looked like shriveled up beetles, with smooth backs and grooved underbellies. And, because I wasn't about to pick them up or sniff them, it took a panicked phone call to the housemate (vacationing in Europe) to find out they were actually coffee beans, dropped and lost over the years.

I probably shouldn't have made that confession in public (how could I not recognize coffee beans?), but I reckon if my housemate had found these beans scattered in the pantry, her imagination would have taken flight too:

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A Russian friend recently observed, "All you have to do to cook Chinese is replace the salt with soy sauce." It wasn't a thought that had occurred to me, and it was with some astonishment that my mind raced through all the bean-based sauces and condiments the Chinese do indeed use (what can I say, we worship the noble bean). Some people rinse or even soak the fermented beans prior to using, but I've never found the need for that. Different brands can vary wildly in saltiness, though, so always taste first, before smashing them with the side of your cleaver, together with garlic and ginger, for a hearty stir-fry with meat, vegetables, tofu, seafood, or even tossed with plain old fried rice and egg noodles.

Me? I like it sautéed with broccoli, swiss browns, and plenty of sweet, caramelized onions—animal protein optional.

You only need a little each time (a tablespoon, give or take) and they last for months in a glass jar. Did I mention they are insanely affordable? I buy the ones sold in plastic bags and transfer them to a jar at home—somehow, the ones that already come in jars tend to lack a certain kick.