Contrary to what Chinese restaurant menus say, there really isn't a "black bean sauce." When a dish is called, for example, "Clams with Black Bean Sauce," it means the sauce happens to contain some little fermented black soy beans.

Depending on the chef, the sauce may also contain soy and/or oyster sauce or it may have neither. It may or may not have garlic and ginger. It may be overly thickened, brown and tired, or it may be light, fresh and clean-tasting. It may even be fired with chili peppers.

In fact, you can cook with black beans -- one of the first condiments in Chinese culinary history -- and end up with no sauce at all, as in the recipe that follows.

Called shih in early texts, these soybeans, which are partially decomposed by a special mold, then dried and often, though not always, salted, predate soy sauce and probably any other soy food. Because they're cheap and easy to make, they have long been a favorite of rural people who could not afford another type of condiment.

Once the only soy seasoning, they were used throughout China, but now are more widely used in the south and are a fixture of Cantonese cooking. The chili pastes of southern Hunan province usually have a sprinkling of black beans, whereas the nearly identical pastes of Sichuan province do not.

Black beans have a pleasing winy flavor and when used properly -- unfortunately they often end up in a gloppy, musty tasting brown sauce in restaurants -- are a wonderful complement to seafood. Meats and poultry also can be delicious seasoned with black beans, and asparagus and broccoli have an affinity for their special flavor.

Rinsing black beans, as some recipes suggest, is unnecessary and in fact diminishes their flavor slightly. When buying the salted kind, just take their saltiness into account when adding other seasonings. Depending on the dish, black beans should be chopped lightly or crushed a little with the side of a cleaver to release their flavor, then tossed with a tablespoon or two of dry sherry, and chopped garlic and ginger if the dish calls for them, and set aside until ready to use.

Fermented black beans -- sometimes called "preserved beans" or "salted beans" -- are usually sold in 8-ounce plastic packages. Bits of ginger and sometimes orange peel are added. Mee Chun, the most common brand, is an acceptable product, as are the black beans of the Koon Chun Sauce Factory. Earthier and more classic are the Yang Jiang Preserve Beans in a 17-ounce cylindrical yellow box. After opening, black beans should be transferred to a covered jar and stored away from light and heat. They will keep indefinitely. SHRIMP WITH BLACK BEANS, CHILIES AND GINGER (3 to 4 as a main dish, 4 to 6 as part of an Asian meal)

1 pound medium to large shrimp

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil

2 teaspoons salted and fermented black beans, lightly chopped

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon dry sherry or shao hsing (Chinese rice wine)

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons chicken stock or water

1 cup peanut oil

4 small chili peppers, preferably red, seeded and shredded

1 heaping tablespoon shredded fresh ginger

1/3 cup fresh coriander leaves

Shell and devein the shrimp. Cut in half lengthwise. In a small bowl toss the shrimp with the cornstarch and 1/2 teaspoon of the sesame oil and refrigerate until ready to use.

In another bowl combine the black beans, garlic and sherry, and set aside. Combine the salt, sugar, chicken stock and the remaining teaspoon of sesame oil, and set aside.

Heat the peanut oil in a wok or skillet and when hot but not smoking, add the shrimp. Separate the shrimp quickly as they cook, and after about 1 minute or so -- they should have just turned pink -- transfer to a colander to drain. Remove the oil from the pan except about 3 tablespoons. Reheat over a high flame and add the chili pepper and ginger shreds, and cook, stirring for 30 seconds. Add the black bean mixture and stir just until fragrant. Return the shrimp to the pan with the seasoned chicken stock and toss rapidly for about 30 seconds or until most of the liquid disappears, then toss in the coriander leaves and turn off the heat. Stir just to wilt the coriander and serve.