In memory of a chef-dad, plus his from-scratch black bean sauce

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Cathy Chun stir-frying vegetables to use with her dad’s black bean sauce recipe

Not everyone grew up on the tasty goodness of mom’s or grandma’s cooking.

Cathy Chun is a valid case in point. Her late father, David Chun, reined in the kitchen. And everyone, including Cathy’s mom, was happy with that arrangement.

Ironic as it was, Cathy’s dad was the first son in his family. The antithesis to the stereotypical, pampered, first-born son (FBS) in a Chinese family (more often than not, a FBS is showered with attention, isn’t expected to lift a finger, and lo and behold if he steps into the kitchen!), David spent a lot of time in the kitchen as a boy and learned to cook.

Cathy and her siblings were the happy beneficiaries of their dad’s talents in the kitchen. Food was the medium he used to show his love, she explained. “He was not expressive emotionally but he made sure we ate good food.”

On a surprisingly sunny day in autumnal Seattle, I was cooking at Cathy’s house with her sister Carol who was visiting from Hawaii. Cathy wanted to show me how to make her dad’s black bean sauce–from scratch!–and a couple of other dishes from their family cookbooks.

Yes, they had not one, but three, family cookbooks! In 1988, Cathy’s family published a family cookbook entitled Potluck at Popo’s followed by the sequels Just One More in 1989 and Once Again at Popo’s in 2002. When Cathy was growing up in Hawaii, her grandmother, whom she called Popo, hosted numerous potluck parties to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions. Relatives stretching across five generations would gather at Popo’s house, each family bringing a favorite dish. Eventually, they decided to compile these dishes into several cookbook volumes for posterity.

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As we chopped asparagus and peeled shrimp, Cathy and Carol bantered and reminisced about their dad and their childhood.

Turns out that not only was their dad a superb cook, he was a meticulous one too.

Carol remembered how, wielding a pair of tweezers, he would pick the tiny hairs off pork destined for the pot, and pull the pin feathers off the chickens he was about to cook. And he could always be found on Thanksgiving morning cutting bread into cubes to roast in the oven for croutons and stuffing. Boxed versions never passed muster.

The conversation meandered organically: we discussed all the different things you could do with spam and Vienna sausages–staples in Hawaii, of course–and whether rice is better cooked on the stove or in the rice cooker. Cathy explained it simply. “I grew up on rice made in a pot.” And that’s how she’s always liked it.

In the end, it all boils down to what you’re used to. Yet another quirk–Cathy’s dad never used a wok and “his cast iron skillet was always on the stove,” she recalled. This might explain why her favorite kitchen accoutrement is the skillet.

Through osmosis, Cathy incorporated many of her dad’s tips and tricks into her culinary repertoire. And the ever-sentimental daughter still keeps his sharpening stone on her kitchen counter as a reminder of the loving father who nourished her both physically and emotionally.

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Here are some tips and tricks Cathy’s dad used in the kitchen. Perhaps you’d find them useful too!

  • Cathy’s dad taught her never to add oil to a cold pan. So when’s the right time to add it? I watched as Cathy held her hand over the pan on the heated stove to “feel” if it was hot enough. She couldn’t really explain it but she said with experience, you’ll just know. “There’s a connection between knowing the heat level and what it does.”
  • He always hand chopped ingredients. He believed a food processor mashed up food and ruined its texture.
  • When making kao yuk (another term for soy sauce pork), Cathy’s dad would fry the pork belly first. Then he’d place it in the sink, pierce the fat and run cold water over it to allow the fat to rise to the top. This removed some of the “fattiness” of the pork.
  • The secret to great tasting chow fun (fried rice noodles) is to season the rice noodles with oyster sauce and let it sit first before throwing in the rest of ingredients.
  • Cathy’s dad always cooked with bacon grease. Does it make food tastier? You be the judge!

Shrimp with Black Bean Sauce

Bottled black bean sauce is ubiquitous in the aisles of any Asian grocery store. But as the saying goes, from-scratch really does taste better and you can control the amount of sodium that goes into the sauce. Keep in mind that fermented black beans are coated with salt so feel free to adjust the amount of sodium-containing ingredients (i.e. soy sauce, store-bought stock, etc.). Try the basic sauce with chicken or pork too, and mix and match the vegetables.

Time: 20 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6

Combine the following in a small bowl for the basic black bean sauce mixture:
2 tablespoons fermented black beans, rinsed and mashed
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2/3 cup chicken stock

2 green and/or red bell peppers, seeded and cut into 1-inch squares
12-14 stalks asparagus, cut into 1-inch lengths (about half a bundle)
1-1/2 pounds shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 tablespoons canola oil (or bacon grease if you dare!), divided

In a work or large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil until very hot (test with a few sprinkles of water, if it sizzles, it’s ready). Stir-fry veggies over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes and remove from pan.

In the same skillet, add remaining oil and heat until very hot. Add shrimp and cook until they just turn pink, about 1 minute. Add black bean sauce and stir to coat shrimp. Add veggies and mix well. Add 2 tablespoons water and stir-fry with a couple more flourishes.

Take off the stove and serve with steamed rice.

65 thoughts on “In memory of a chef-dad, plus his from-scratch black bean sauce

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  8. This recipe looks awesome. Definately going to try this tonight maybe with pork instead of shrimp and whatever veggies I can find in the fridge.

  9. A few questions. Can you make a lot of the black bean sauce at one time and save it? Does it need to be refrigerated or frozen? How long you save it? What does it do to the taste if you freeze it. etc.etc.? Thanks!

  10. Hi Jean,
    No, they are not the same, although they are both made from soybeans. Simply put, fermented black beans are soybeans that have been salted and fermented, and these beans are used to flavor dishes. Tempeh, on the other hand, has been fermented using a mold called Rhizopus oligosporus. The final product can be sliced and used in stir-fries and other dishes as a meat-substitute. Hope this helps!

  11. Jean, I’m no expert, but I believe the difference is that the fermented black beans (really soy beans) that you would want to use in this recipe are still whole beans, whereas tempeh has been processed into more of a cake, similar in texture to a very firm tofu. Here is a link to a wikipedia article about tempeh:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tempeh
    and one about fermented blackbeans:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermented_black_beans
    both articles have pictures, so you can see that there is a difference.

  12. Hi,

    just to say thanks for a great recipe! Finally overcame my fear of trying this kind of sauce from scratch and used your recipe because it looked easier than others.

    Was not disappointed! Am amazed at how different it tastes to sauces from a jar, which in the U.K. I can now say are incredibly bland by comparison! I’ve always loved the taste of soya beans (I even love natto!) so this was great.

    So thanks again and looking forward to checking out your other recipes now I’m beginning to overcome my wok fear!

    😀

  13. fantastic! All the bottled sauces I come across here in Canada have wheat starches in them that I can’t eat. Looking forward to trying this! Also looking forward to seeing the answer on the question of whether or not the black beans need to be fermented. And can this sauce be made in bulk and stored? Thanks!!!

    1. Hi Julie,
      This recipe is great too cause you can control how salty you want your sauce to be as well as skip any preservatives you don’t want. Enjoy!

    2. Hi Julie,
      You have to buy the Chinese fermented “black beans” which are actually soybeans turned black through oxidation. You can find them at the Asian store in the dried goods aisle. I use a brand called Mee Sum. Yes you can make it in bulk but I would refrigerate it and use it up within 2 weeks. Cheers!

  14. Is it possible to use black beans that have not fermented? Could the same rcioe be used? If not how could unfermented black beans used?
    Thank you,
    webilleve.

    1. Hi Eve,
      Black beans is really a misnomer, they are actually soy beans that have been salted and fermented and the oxidation turns them black. So you have to buy the fermented beans from the Asian market. I hope you can find some! Cheers,
      Pat

  15. Cam i use the black bean sauce as a marinade? Do you also have a reciepe for fried rice? My boyfriend just adores both and I would love to be able to make him them for a special dinner.

    1. Hi Louise, Of course you can. It’s yummy on the grill–try it on fish or beef too, I’ll try and post a fried rice recipe for you soon.

  16. Just bought my first bottle of fermented black beans by accident, and came across this recipe and blog by accident. After making black bean sauce from scratch, i now realize there ARE no “accidents”! This was a wonderful, simpl, and quick recipe!

  17. Kalustyan’s on Lexington Ave near 28th St (http://www.kalustyans.com) sells packages of fermented black beans that are quite reasonably priced. I usually rinse them a couple times because they are salty little buggers, and use low sodium soy sauce and chicken broth (I also add a little rice wine vinegar to my version of the sauce)

    1. Thanks for sharing, David. I’ve heard Kalustyan’s is a great resource for ethnic foods. You’re lucky to have it at your disposal. I have to admit that I think low sodium soy sauce is an oxymoron, I’d just add less :).

  18. What if we’re unable to find the fermented black beans, never mind black bean sauce? What kind of beans are they and how do you ferment them? When I say from scratch I mean from scratch!!

    1. Hi Denise, they’re actually salted and fermented soy beans. I must admit I don’t know how to ferment them but if I do come across an alternative for you i’ll let you know. Try mail order?

  19. That’s funny I couldn’t find any black bean sauce the other either which seemed pretty wierd as well especially since I live in NYC. But now that I have this recipe I don’t have to make my way over to China town.

  20. Good for you. You can rarely get REAL BLACK BEAN SAUCE…this is it. If you ever buy a bottled sauce, make sure it only has black beans, salt,and water. There is no substitute for bacon grease flavor.

  21. Amazing black bean sauce…..made stir fried veggies with this yesterday and it came out to be sooo delicious.
    Thank you.

  22. Hello,

    I would like to purchase all three volumes of Cathy’s family cookbook….”Potluck at Popo’s, etc.” Where can I buy them? Sincerely, Suzanne

  23. This is gonna sound silly, but I never knew you could make black bean sauce from scratch. I’m so used to the bottled brand that making it myself never occurred to me.

  24. Hi Pat,
    I wonder if the Chun’s has a preferred fermented black bean brand… I onced purchased a bag and the beans taste sort of bitter.

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