Once upon a time not so long ago, having the words “fermented” and “bean” all cozied up next to each other would have been seriously nausea inducing for me. Paul and Patric weren’t so fond of the concept either. But then we got a recipe that called for chili bean paste, and everything changed.
Chili bean paste is no more or less than fermented beans (fava and/or soy) mixed with hot chili peppers, but it’s got this really complex layering of flavors that really makes you want to find more things to cook with it. It’s spicy (and not just a little), but it’s also tangy and earthy and a little bit sweet. It’s got a lot of umami going on. A little bit of ginger, some garlic, and a big dollop of chili bean paste and you’ve got the basics for a kick-ass sauce or stir fry or soup or… Well, you get the idea. It just makes stuff better.
It’s a Sichaun staple, so much so that Wikipedia says, “It is used particularly in Sichuan cuisine, and in fact, the people of the province commonly refer to it as ‘the soul of Sichuan cuisine’.” It also shows up in Korean food.
The darker it is, the more “mature” it is, the funkier it’s going to be with more of the fermented flavor coming through. There are a lot of brand choices out there. You can find it in Asian markets and even in some supermarkets. What you want to pay attention to is the ingredient list. You want to see chilies, beans, salt, and flour. Oil can be an okay addition, but you really don’t want it to have sugar or garlic in it. Those are flavors that you want to be able to add if you want and definitely want to control the amounts that go into your dish. And you should also be aware that some brands contain MSG, so you should always check the label if you’re sensitive.
So what exactly can you do with it? Tonight, we did this, a monochromatic but delicious dish:
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
- 1 pound eggplant, trimmed and cut into long pieces
- 1 tablespoon hot chili oil
- 1 teaspoon minced ginger
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon chili bean paste
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons chili bean paste
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 8 ounces glass noodles, preferably sweet potato starch
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns, ground
- Heat the peanut oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Add the eggplant and cook, stirring constantly, until the eggplant is lightly browned with crisp edges. Transfer the eggplant to a bowl.
- Add the chili oil to the wok and allow to heat. Add the ginger, garlic, and chili bean paste and cook for 30 seconds.
- Return the eggplant to the wok and add the dark soy sauce. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, for 1 minute or until the eggplant pieces appear dark brown and glazed.
- Keep warm until ready to serve.
- Combine the ground pork with the soy sauce, chili bean paste, and cornstarch. Allow the meat to marinate while preparing the rest of the ingredients.
- In a large bowl, cover the noodles with boiling water and allow them to soak for at least 8 minutes, working with a fork to separate.
- Heat the peanut oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Add the pork and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until most liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes.
- Drain the water from the noodles and add them to the pork in the wok, along with the additional water and dark soy sauce. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, for 5 to 8 minutes or until the water has cooked into the noodles.
- Serve immediately, topped with the eggplant.