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February 09, 2006

New Ingredients


From the left, Shaohsing, Chinkiang Vinegar, Fermented Black Beans and Chili Bean Sauce.
These days, it isn't often that I work with brand new ingredients for the first time. So, working with four in the same day was definitely worth documenting.

In keeping with one of my stated goals for 2006, I did a little further exploration of traditional Chinese cuisine tonight. So I picked out a few simple stir-fry recipies, drove down to a Chinese grocery I've been meaning to check out for a while (Richwell Market, in Chinatown), and loaded up. If anything, the large number of staples only served to demonstrate just how few traditional Chinese dishes I've actually made. Which is depressing, given the number of pseudo-Chinese dishes I've made. But self-loathing doesn't go well with stir-fry, so I got over it and played with my new toys.

Shaohsing
The first is shaohsing. In truth, I can't say this is the first time I've used shaohsing... just the first time I've bought it. I have a beautiful old bottle of the stuff on my shelf that I received as a gift, and I've broken out from time to time to use a little. But for the most part, I've used dry sherry, which is often suggested as a substitute. But my bottle of shaohsing is old, and while I'm told it's supposed to improve with age, I've never really been sure if what I was tasting was in any way what it was supposed to be. So I bought a bottle, and was surprised to find just how ample of a substitute dry sherry really is. Don't get me wrong, they're not at all the same, but in character they're actually quite similar. The shaohsing isn't nearly as dry, but it has that intersting sourness that I'm used to in dry sherry. And on the tail end, you can definitely taste the rice from which it's fermented.


The same ingredients, sans packaging.
Chinkiang Vinegar
Next up, Chinkiang vinegar. It's a type of rice vinegar, but a long, long way from the clean Japanese version. Also known as black vinegar, it's apparently made from either black or brown glurinous rice. It isn't too harsh, but rather has a nice sweetness to it. And it's an assertive, full flavor that's very pleasant. Perhaps most interestingly, I was surprised to find that it has a very slight smoky flavor. Or maybe I got an odd bottle. But I believe that's normal. Good stuff.

Fermented Black Beans
Fermented black beans are pretty much what they sound like. They're Chinese black beans that have been salted and sometimes lightly seasoned, then left out to dry and ferment slightly. If you've ever had anything in a Chinese black bean sauce, you know what they taste like. They're beany. They're salty. The bit of fermentation gives them an interesting character. I'd say they were exactly as I expected, except for the packaging. At least for the brand I bought, they're basically just tossed in a simple cardboard tube. Nothing airtight, barely sealed. I suppose there's really no need, but in a country where everything under the sun is vacuum-sealed for freshness, it's a little unexpected. These little fellows take a bath before you use them (maybe half an hour in a few changes of water) to lessen the impact of the salt, and then they go into all kind of traditional stir-frys.

Chili Bean Sauce
It was only after the fact that I discovered this is the toban djan so frequently referenced in Iron Chef Chen Kenichi's battles. And the reason it's a staple is immediately evident. It isn't fancy... just a simple fermented soy paste with a healthy dose of prepared chili mixed in. It's the perfect base for any kind of full-flavored spicy dish. The chili brings the heat and the bean gives it some gravity. I look forward to trying a few different brands so I can settle on a favorite.

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