Steamed clams with black bean sauce
Black soybeans are a useful ingredient originating in China, where they are fermented and used in cooking and also medicinally. The beans are fermented with salt and the result is not a sauce or a paste but a firm, small, soft bean coated in salt crystals. The resulting bean is a somewhat unattractive-looking nugget that needs to be thoroughly rinsed before use.
All fermentation – whether it be salting or lacto-fermentation – does at least two things. Not only does it preserve the produce, it also alters the texture and flavour of whatever is being fermented. In this case the fermented black bean is an intensely concentrated umami bomb.
Black bean sauce originated in southern China. The recipe evolved and changed regionally, and as it was exported to different parts of the globe. I had eaten black bean products and sauces all over the world but none really grabbed my attention until a friend shared this recipe.
The heavy use of aromatics in the recipe and the generous slug of Shaoxing wine cut through the black beans, while the cup of oyster sauce brings a sweetness to the dish and offers a silken texture. The amount of oyster sauce in this recipe may seem like a lot: it is and it’s necessary. Commit to it. I use Megachef Premium Oyster Sauce – an excellent variety, made in Thailand. It comes in an attractive gold bottle and is available at most Asian groceries. Megachef also make a brilliant fish sauce. I promise I have no interest in the company.
I try to go for slightly larger clams for this recipe – or pipis if clams are not available. The smaller pipis are delicious but can be quite a lot of work for not much reward. Most clams are already purged when you buy them, but it’s worth asking the fishmonger just in case. If they have not been purged, I take a quarter-cup of long-grain rice and add it to enough water to cover the clams. The starch in the water aggravates the clams, which will then expel any sand or grit.
One of the best things to come from a clam is the juice that results from the cooking. For this recipe, I strain off the juice before tossing the clams in the black bean sauce. Keep the clam juice and freeze it to use in a pasta or a risotto or a braise. You won’t regret it.
Serves 2 as a meal or 4 as a starter
Time: 15 minutes preparation + 30 minutes cooking
Steamed clams with black bean sauce
- 1kg clams
- 4 spring onions, sliced
- ½ cup black bean sauce (see recipe below)
- ¼ bunch coriander
- Place a wok or large frypan over a high heat. When it is hot, add the clams along with the spring onions and a tablespoon of water. Cover the pan with a lid and continue to cook, taking a peek every 30 seconds or so to see if the clams have started to open. As they do, use a pair of tongs to remove them one at a time. When all the clams are open, strain off the liquid and set them aside.
- Warm the black bean sauce in the wok or frypan. Add the clams and toss them in the sauce.
- Continue to fold the clams through the sauce until they are completely coated in the sauce.
- Serve immediately with some torn coriander and fried Chinese doughnuts or steamed rice.
Black bean sauce
(Makes 2 cups)
This is a great version of the classic Cantonese sauce. It’s versatile, excellent with vegetables and seafood, and will keep well in the fridge for up to a week.
- 3 tbsp grapeseed oil
- 7.5cm piece ginger, finely shredded
- 12 cloves garlic, finely diced
- 60g salted black beans, soaked in water for 10 minutes
- ⅓ cup Shaoxing wine
- 1 cup best quality oyster sauce
- ¾ cup water
- 1 tbsp sweet soy sauce
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- In a stainless steel saucepan gently warm the grapeseed oil over a medium heat. Add the ginger and cook for three to four minutes until aromatic and wilted.
- Add the garlic and continue to cook until the garlic is soft and starting to caramelise.
- Meanwhile, strain and finely chop the black beans.
- Add the Shaoxing wine to the ginger and garlic and simmer until reduced by half.
- Add the oyster sauce, water, sweet soy sauce and the black beans and bring to a simmer. Continue to cook gently, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.
- If the sauce seems a little thick, thin it with a few tablespoons of water.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the sesame oil once the sauce has cooled.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 14, 2023 as "Behold the clam".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription
Letters & Editorial