Sichuan Dandanmian ft. Yacai (Dandan Noodles, 担担面)
Published May 29, 2014, Updated Feb 13, 2024
Chengdu Challenge #1: First Love
Dandanmian 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.
So it seemed fitting to kick off this blog in 2014 with a dish that I knew and loved and had cooked dozens of times since I first started traveling to Chengdu in 2007. I based my version on the one in Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English (published in China by the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine) because I was excited by ingredients in it that other recipes for dandanmian don’t call for (lard! sweet wheat paste!). The recipe for dandanmian leads off the XiaoChi (小吃, xiǎochī), or Snacks, section of the book. It is, after all, Chengdu’s most famous xiaochi.
Since that recipe is presented as the definitive one by the definitive Sichuan cooking school, it’s the perfect place to start. It uses the lard and sweet wheat paste to fry the pork topping, while the sauce features the classic ingredients: homemade chili oil, Sichuan soy sauce and vinegar and, of course, Sichuan pepper and Yibin yacai, a local fermented mustard green pickle without which dandanmian is not dandanmian.
There are, however, endless variations on the famous noodle, even in Sichuan itself: Some dandanmian in Sichuan include a small bit of Chinese sesame paste in the sauce and some do not; some are topped with a shock of leafy green and some come without any greens; sometimes the noodles swim in a soupy sauce and sometimes there is just enough sauce to coat them. But they’re all recognizable as dandanmian.
I opted for sesame paste in my recipe, specifically The Mala Market’s organic, stone-ground sesame paste, but just enough to add a hint of creamy nuttiness without upsetting the savory-tart-spicy balance that is the signature of the dish.
The noodle used in Sichuan is typically a medium-thick, round, wheat noodle that is often alkaline. Alkaline noodles include 碱水 (jiǎnshuǐ)—kansui in Japanese—an alkaline lye water, which lends them springiness and chewiness (as well as a yellow tint), and allows them to hold up better in sauce and broth. We much prefer these sturdier noodles, but most Chinese dried wheat noodles do not include alkaline, even those generally labeled as Sichuan or Chengdu or dandan-style. We therefore recommend using a fresh Chengdu-style noodle or Japanese ramen noodle—but check the ingredient list on either for sodium carbonate, the alkaline ingredient. For a dried noodle solution, we suggest jianshui Wenzhou-style noodles, which we have recently imported for The Mala Market specifically for dandanmian and other Sichuan noodles and soups.
In Chengdu, dandanmian is almost always served in a very small snack bowl, which is one reason it isn’t really all that popular there nowadays. (Read about what noodles are super popular in Chengdu and a recipe to make them.)
In America, we’ve ignored that tradition, and restaurants normally serve dandanmian in larger portions. That is an innovation I have adopted with this recipe, which serves three people or more from one bowl. Though of course you can go old-school and divide the sauce among small single-serving bowls and build the servings individually.
As with all Sichuan noodles, the ingredients are layered into the bowl: sauce on bottom, then noodles and greens, then pork on top. It is up to the diner (or cook) to mix it all together at the table. This act of mixing the noodles, or “拌 (bàn),” is a Sichuan art form. All ingredients should get well mixed, without making a mess, before you dig in, so that you’re getting a balance of flavors.
The key—and the challenge—to a good dandanmian, in my opinion, is getting the right ratio of sauce to noodles. This can be hard to estimate, so I suggest reserving some of the noodle water (as you would for Italian pasta) so that you can add it to the noodles if they are too dry when you do the mix. As you can see from the photos, my sauce is almost chunky with yacai, green onions and chili oil flakes, but when mixed into the noodles with the pork, it fits like a glove. An umami glove.
Sichuan Dandanmian ft. Yacai (Dandan Noodles, 担担面)
- 5 to 6 tablespoons homemade chili oil with flakes see note
- 4 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- 4 tablespoons Baoning or Zhenjiang black vinegar
- 1½ tablespoons Chinese sesame paste
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground Sichuan pepper see note
- ¼ cup chicken broth
- 4 tablespoons suimiyacai preserved mustard stem
- 2 scallions, finely sliced
- 2 tablespoons lard or oil
- ⅓ pound finely ground pork
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 2 teaspoons tianmianjiang (sweet wheat paste)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 4 baby bokchoy, cut in half vertically
- 10½ ounces medium, round, Chinese alkaline wheat noodles approx. 300 grams
- Combine chili oil with flakes, soy sauce, vinegar, sesame paste, sugar, Sichuan pepper, chicken broth, yacai and scallions and add to a serving bowl or divide among 3 to 4 individual-serving bowls.
- While bringing water to a boil in a large pot, heat a dry wok until very hot and add lard (or oil). When lard is hot, add the pork and stir-fry, breaking up into very small bits, until it loses its pinkness. Add the wine, sweet wheat paste and salt and continue to stir-fry until the pork is lightly crisp. Drain the pork and keep in reserve.
- Add bok choy to boiling water and cook 1 to 2 minutes, or until done; remove and hold. Add noodles to same pot and cook until just done. Reserve ¼ cup of the noodle water.
- Drain noodles, leaving them slightly wet, and immediately layer into the bowl(s) on top of the sauce. Top the noodles with the pork and bok choy. At table, mix the noodles in with the sauce, distributing ingredients throughout. If the noodles are too dry, mix in a bit of the reserved noodle water. Alternatively, pre-mix the noodles in the sauce, then portion between bowls and top with pork and bok choy.
Tried this recipe?