Chengdu Challenge #1: Dan Dan Noodles (Dan Dan Mian)
The Dan Dan Mian Challenge~~
Dan dan noodles was the first real Sichuan dish I ever had, when Grand Sichuan International, the first real Sichuan restaurant in Manhattan in decades, opened close to my home in Chelsea in the mid-’90s. I’ll never forget the moment when they sat it on the table. It looked like a plain bowl of boiled noodles with some ground pork on the top, but then I realized I needed to stir it up myself and began to turn the noodles and crispy pork over in the pool of sauce sitting at the bottom of the bowl. I had never tasted anything like it—spicy, savory, good beyond belief. I had no idea what was in that sauce, but it was magnificent, in the simplest way, and had zero in common with the Chinese noodles I’d previously encountered, namely greasy, tasteless chow mein.
So it seems fitting to kick off the Chengdu Challenge with a dish that I know and love and have cooked dozens of times since I first started traveling to Chengdu in 2007. I tested the version in Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English because I was excited by ingredients in it that other recipes for dan dan mian don’t call for (lard! sweet wheat paste!). The recipe for dan dan mian leads off the Xiao Chi, or Snacks, section of the book. It is, after all, Chengdu’s most famous xiao chi.
Even in Sichuan, no two dan dans are exactly the same. I’ve eaten dozens of variations on this famous dish: about half are made the classic way—which calls for no sesame paste—and about half include a small bit of Chinese sesame paste in the sauce; some are topped with a shock of leafy green and some come without any greens; in some versions the noodles swim in a soupy sauce and in some there is just enough sauce to coat the noodles. What they always have in common is being a composed vs. a stir-fried noodle dish, requiring no cooking other than boiling the noodles and greens (in the same pot) and crisping the meat before they are layered into the bowl.
(Note that in later iterations of this recipe, when making one large serving bowl of dan dan I mix the noodles with the sauce before topping them with the pork and bok choy . You can also layer the ingredients on top of the sauce and mix it all together at the table, as is the norm in Sichuan, where dan dan noodles are served in individual-portion, snack-size bowls.)
I can report in all honesty that this version of dan dan mian is the best I’ve ever made. Mainly because it has the perfect sauce-to-noodle ratio, which I have found elusive in the past. Due to the addition of stock to the sauce, the noodles are not too dry, as is a frequent outcome, but also not soupy, just perfectly moistened, with plenty of that super sauce. I made the recipe with a fetucini-size dried Chinese wheat noodle and also with a thin round one I found that said it was specifically for dan dan mian. Japanese ramen or any similar Asian stick noodle is a great substitute. Just don’t use egg noodles.
Another brilliant touch of this recipe that you don’t see elsewhere is frying the ground pork in lard (the freshly made, non-processed, better-for-you-than-butter kind) and tian mian jiang, or sweet fermented wheat paste, which crisps it up beautifully and gives it a deep brown color and much richer taste. Like all true dan dan recipes, this one includes the earthy twang of yacai, Sichuan preserved mustard greens, as a defining taste. The recipe does not call for any greens, but we love baby bok choy so I add quite a bit as garnish.
I’ve made this recipe now several times both with and without the sesame paste and will use it as the standard from now on. It’s perfection! How do I know? My daughter, skinny little picky eater Fong Chong, had a giant bowl of it for dinner, plus the leftovers for lunch and an after-school snack the next day.
I have lots more to say about dan dan mian and my family:
Recipe revised November 2017
- 5 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
- 4 tablespoons chili oil with flakes (preferably homemade)
- 3 tablespoons Zhenjiang (Chinkiang) vinegar
- 2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3 tablespoons Yibin yacai preserved vegetable
- 3 scallions, finely chopped
- ¼ cup chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons lard
- ⅓ pound finely ground pork
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 2 teaspoons sweet wheat paste (tian mian jiang)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 baby bok choy, cut in half vertically
- 12 ounces dried, or 1 pound fresh, thin or medium-wide Chinese wheat noodles
- Combine the soy sauce, chili oil with flakes, vinegar, sesame paste, sugar, yacai, scallions and chicken stock in a large mixing bowl.
- Heat a dry wok until wisps of heat start to rise and add lard (or oil). When lard is hot, add the pork and stir-fry until it loses its pinkness. Add the Shaoxing wine, sweet wheat paste and salt and continue to stir-fry until the pork is lightly crisp and starts to "pop." Drain the pork and keep in reserve.
- Bring water to a boil in a large pot, add bok choy and cook about 2 minutes, or until done. Remove bok choy and hold; if pieces are too large, separate leaves. Add noodles to same pot of boiling water and cook just until done. Drain noodles well and mix in a bit of oil to keep them from sticking together.
- Add the noodles to the sauce bowl and mix well. Layer the noodles in a clean serving bowl and top with the pork and bok choy. To serve as they do in Sichuan, layer the ingredients in small single-serving bowls with sauce on the bottom, noodles laid over the sauce, pork and bok choy on top; allow diners to mix up the noodles.