Last week my kitchen smelled of garlic and fermented black beans browning in oil. I pressed on the black beans with a wooden spoon, and in no time the oil was fragrant and blackened by the smudged-up beans. With a combination like that—garlic and fermented black beans—you could cook a lot of things in there.
You could cook meat—a cut-up chicken, pork ribs, cubes of stewing beef. You could brown and simmer firm tofu. Or, you could skip the protein altogether, and stew potatoes. The saltiness of the beans would be a nice foil for the mild potatoes.
And don't you just love the cylindrical paper containers in which the fermented black beans are often sold? I do. There's elegance in its simplicity, the way the lid is just a cardboard circle that you press back into the carton in order to open and close it.
One of my favorites is the Cantonese classic, chicken simmered in black bean sauce. The sauce is so good that it makes me remember that I don't eat a lot chicken, mostly because my diet these days is something like 70 percent noodles, 25 percent pork, and 5 percent miscellany, like ice cream and other nonessentials (vegetables, fruit, that sort of thing). But I should. Chicken is so good.
Especially when it is browned beforehand (in the classic Cantonese preparation, it is deep-fried, but you can most definitely get away with browning) before you simmer it in the fermented black beans, along with garlic and just a touch of oyster sauce. I always put something spicy in there—dried red chili peppers, or jalapeños—to liven it up a bit.
But the most important thing is that there are a lot of fermented black beans and garlic coating the tender morsels of chicken. There is enough sauce in the pot when you are done simmering, I dare say, to spoon on top of rice or noodles for a one-dish meal.