A Chinese, Vegan Take on Red Beans and Rice
Red-braising, also called red-cooking — or in Chinese, hong shoo — is common throughout much of China. It’s long, slow cooking at low heat, and it’s a technique that’s typically used only with meat dishes.
But vegetables taste great cooked this way too, as I discovered a few weeks ago when I made Red-Braised Beef with Sweet Potatoes. As I was rolling the memory of that meal around in my head, I started wondering how red-braised beans would taste. And that led me to imagine a Chinese version of red beans and rice. Red-braising has a richness of flavor similar to that found in Creole red beans and rice (a dish that typically features pork bones, usually ham).
Then I decided to combine the beans with sweet potatoes — and suddenly I was planning a vegan dish. The flavors should all work together, I thought.
Wow, did they ever. The flavor is spectacular.
Next time you have a hankering for a vegan main dish, do yourself a favor and make this. You’ll owe me.
Recipe: Red-Braised Beans and Sweet Potatoes
This technique is called red-braising because some components of the braising liquid have a reddish hue that slightly colors whatever is being cooked. The coloring agents can be dark soy sauce and caramelized sugar, both of which appear prominently in most recipes for red-braising. But some red-braising recipes, particularly in the provinces of Hunan and Sichuan, substitute chili bean paste (a specialty of Sichuan) for the sugar. And that’s what we’re doing in this recipe.
I learned about red-braising from reading various sources, but I particularly enjoy Fuchia Dunlop’s discussion in both Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. Both books are excellent, and I recommend them.
A 6-quart Dutch oven is the perfect cooking utensil for this recipe. If you don’t have one, use any pot that’s stovetop- and oven-friendly. This recipe does require a few specialty ingredients, as discussed below. Active prep time is about 25 minutes; cooking time (largely unattended) is about 2 hours.
This recipe serves 6 to 8. Leftovers will keep in an airtight container for a few days. Actually, this is one of those dishes that tastes better the next day, so you can prepare it ahead of time and then gently reheat it on the stovetop. I haven’t tried freezing this dish, but I suspect it will freeze well.
- 1 pound dried dark red beans or pinto beans (or a mixture), soaked overnight (I don’t recommend canned beans in this recipe; see Notes)
- 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced (may substitute a bunch of scallions, cleaned and chopped)
- 2 - 3 tablespoons neutral cooking oil (peanut oil is traditional for Chinese cooking)
- salt and pepper to taste
- ½ - 1 pound Portobello mushrooms, cleaned and diced
- 3 - 5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 2-inch piece of fresh ginger peeled and sliced into thick rounds (can leave unpeeled if you wish)
- 6 tablespoons Sichuan chili bean sauce or paste (see Notes; I recommend the Lee Kum Kee brand)
- 4 cups water
- ¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine (see Notes)
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (see Notes)
- 1 star anise (see Notes)
- ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
- ¾ teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper (optional; see Notes)
- 1 black cardamom (cao guo) or 3 green cardamom pods (see Notes)
- 2 sticks cinnamon
- ~2 pounds sweet potatoes (2 large or 3 medium)
- cilantro or thin round of scallion greens for garnish (optional)
- cooked rice for serving
You can braise the beans either in the oven or on top of the stove. Instructions are provided for both methods.
- Pick over beans (to remove any dirt or stones) and soak 8 hours or overnight in enough water to cover by several inches. (See Notes for quick-soak method.) I usually leave the beans out on the kitchen counter overnight, but you can refrigerate them if you’re worried that they may start to ferment.
- When you want to begin braising, drain beans into a colander, rinse, and set aside.
- If braising in the oven, preheat to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Peel and cut onion into dice of between ¼ and ½ inch. Clean and dice mushroom into pieces of ½ inch or a bit larger. Peel and mince garlic and ginger.
- Place Dutch oven on stovetop on medium heat and allow to heat (2-3 minutes).
- When Dutch oven is hot, add oil, allow to warm (it shimmers when it’s warm; this should take just a few seconds), and then add onion. Salt and pepper to taste, and sauté slowly for 4 or 5 minutes (turn down heat if it starts to brown).
- Add mushrooms, and salt and pepper to taste, and sauté slowly for 5 minutes (turn down heat if onion starts to brown).
- Clear the onion/mushroom mixture from the middle of the pot, and add garlic and ginger. Sauté for 30 seconds or so.
- Add the Sichuan chili bean sauce and sauté for 30 seconds.
- Now add the 4 cups of water, drained and soaked beans, the Shaoxing rice wine, the dark soy sauce, the star anise, the fennel seeds, the whole Sichuan peppers (if using), the black cardamon or green cardamon pods, and sticks of cinnamon. Also add additional salt to season the dish — about a teaspoon. Bring to a boil on stovetop, then reduce to barest simmer and cover, or cover and place in oven.
- If using the oven method, check on the beans after about 15 minutes. You want the liquid to be just simmering. You may have to turn the oven down to 275 degrees or so.
- At the 1-hour mark, check the water level in the pot. If too much appears to be evaporating, add a bit more hot water. (The beans won’t be completely covered in liquid, but the level of liquid should be within an inch of the top of the beans.)
- Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into rounds or dice. You’ll add these to the beans for the last half hour of cooking.
- Check on the beans after an hour and a half. They should be getting tender (taste one to test). Total cooking time is usually 2 hours; but if your beans are older, they may take longer.
- Half an hour before you judge the beans to be done, add sweet potatoes. Continue cooking until sweet potatoes are tender. Taste and add additional salt if necessary.
- Serve over cooked rice. A garnish of cilantro or thin rounds of scallion greens is nice.
- Dark red kidney beans are wonderful in this dish. Pintos are also good, and in the version I photographed I have a mix of the two. But the kidney beans have better flavor. I haven’t tried other types of red beans; they may work too.
- Quick-soak method for beans: Pick through the beans, then rinse them. Place beans in a large pot and cover with several inches of water. Bring to boil, and allow to boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and allow to sit for at least one hour. Then drain, rinse, and proceed with recipe.
- Beans soaked overnight have slightly better texture (when cooked) than beans that are quick-soaked, but the difference is minimal. In fact, nowadays when I use dried beans, I usually (although not always) use the quick-soak method.
- Why soak dried beans? Because they cook much quicker when you rehydrate them. Most beans benefit from soaking. (Not lentils and split peas, though. They cook fairly quickly without rehydration, so you don’t need to soak them.)
- A secondary benefit is that while rehydrating, the beans also release most of their flatulence-inducing sugars (oligosaccharides) into the water. When you discard the soaking water, you discard a few nutrients that have leeched into it. But you also discard the substance that causes some people to shy away from dried beans.
- Although you can often substitute canned beans in dishes, they won’t work in this recipe. You need long cooking in order to develop the flavor of the sauce; canned beans would be pulp before the sauce has developed its best flavor.
- That’s also why you add the sweet potatoes at the end — so they don’t overcook and turn into mush.
- Chili bean sauce (Toban Djan, sometimes called chili bean paste, may also be called Sichuan chili bean sauce) is made of salted chile peppers and fava beans (broad beans). It may also contain soybeans, but make sure broad beans are included in whatever you buy. Although there is a spicy hot element to this sauce, the heat is pleasant rather than unbearable. Most American supermarkets don’t carry chili bean sauce, though every Chinese grocery will.
- In a Chinese grocery, you may be faced with several choices, which can be bewildering. How do you know which one to choose? I highly recommend the Lee Kum Kee brand. Its flavor is not particularly hot. (Taste it straight out of the jar — it’s spicy but not five-alarm). Not every Chinese grocery carries this brand, but if you live in a reasonably large city with several Chinese grocery stores, at least one of them will surely stock it (Lee Kum Kee is a major brand). Otherwise, it’s available via the internet. Amazon carries it, although shipping is expensive.
- I’ve tried other brands of chili bean sauce, but I keep coming back to Lee Kum Kee because it delivers good flavor. I continue to try out alternatives, however, and will report back if I find something that’s both better and widely available.
- Chili bean sauce is also used in many other recipes, most notably in Mapo Tofu and Red-Braised Beef with Sweet Potatoes.
- Shaoxing wine (liao jiu) is the most famous variety of Chinese rice wine. Its flavor is very similar to dry sherry (which makes an excellent and readily available substitute). Most Chinese groceries stock this wine. But because it is an alcoholic beverage, local laws may place restrictions on its sale. The alcohol content is fairly low, so once opened this wine will last longer if stored in the refrigerator (the same goes for dry sherry).
- Soy sauce (jiang you) comes in “light” and “dark” varieties. Light soy sauce is thinner than dark and much saltier. If the bottle doesn’t specify which kind it is (in American supermarkets, most bottles don’t), assume that it’s light. Dark soy sauce is darker colored and is sweeter, less salty, and has a heavier consistency. Pearl River Bridge is one widely available brand of Chinese soy sauce of good quality, and comes in both light and dark varieties. For this recipe you must use dark soy sauce; the light just doesn’t cut it. By the way, the “lite” soy sauces you see on supermarket shelves just have reduced sodium; they are not the same as either dark or light Chinese (or Japanese) soy sauces.
- Sichuan peppers aren’t actually peppercorns at all — they’re the pods of a fruit that grows on a bush. They have a wonderful aroma and they’re not particularly hot. But they do create a tingling/numbing effect on the lips and tongue. It’s an effect some find unpleasant, so you may choose to omit this ingredient. Most Chinese grocery stores carry Sichuan peppercorns. However, I’ve occasionally been disappointed by the quality of some that I’ve purchased. I’ve bought bags that turned out not to be fresh, and on one occasion bought a bag that contained dried mud. Gross! For your first venture with Sichuan peppercorns, I recommend purchasing them from Penzeys Spice or another reputable, high-volume spice and herb specialist. Penzeys turns over its inventory rapidly, so the spices you buy from them are likely to be fresh. And you really do want your Sichuan peppers to be as fresh as possible. There’s more information in my post on Roasted Sichuan Pepper Powder.
- Star anise has a flavor similar to regular anise. It’s called star anise because it’s the shape of a star.
- Black cardamom (cao guo) is a large black pod about the size of an unshelled almond. It’s traditional in red-braising recipes, but can be hard to find. Green cardamom pods are an excellent substitute (they actually have better flavor). I have black cardamom on hand, but when I’ve used my supply I won’t replace it— I’ll use green cardamom pods instead.
Great for Meatless Mondays. Special Enough for Company
A lot of people like to eat meatless meals on Mondays. This dish is a natural for that. But it’s also a great company recipe. The mushrooms add a meaty texture, plus the dish has so much rich flavor no one will notice it’s vegan. And if your guests happen to be vegans or vegetarians, well here you go.
“Maybe we should become vegans,” suggested Mrs. Kitchen Riffs as she finished her third! helping. “That way we could eat this all the time.”
“But warm weather is almost here, and that means backyard grilling,” I replied. “You wouldn’t want to give up Barbecued Pork Steaks, would you?”
“Well, no, I wouldn’t. That’s true.” She pondered. “But we could be vegans on Mondays, yes? That way we can eat this again. And soon!”
I think this recipe has Mrs K R’s seal of approval. Which means we’ll be having it again.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Red-Braised Beef with Sweet Potatoes
Mapo Tofu, the Best Darn Tofu Dish Ever
Pork and Vegetable Stir Fry
Roasted Sichuan Pepper Powder
Roast Sweet Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes in Tomato Curry Sauce
Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans
Sweet Potato Soup with Chilies and Corn