Liangfen of Happy Tears (Shangxin Liangfen, 伤心凉粉) From NYC’s Málà Project
Great Sichuan Restaurant Recipes: Tears of Joy or Heartbreak? A Controversial Jelly Noodle
Have you ever been to a Sichuan restaurant and seen a bowl of something that looks like big fat noodles but on closer inspection is actually jiggly strands of jelly? Ranging from translucent to opaque white or yellow, they usually glow with a chili-oil sauce and fresh and crunchy garnishes. When you manage to capture these slippery guys with your chopsticks, they slither down your throat so easily. They are an enigma, at once hot and spicy and light and cooling. And they are perfect for summer.
These are liangfen, which is the term for cold noodles that are made not from wheat but rather from rice or bean starches. Sichuan has numerous liangfen dishes made from sweet potatoes, mung beans, chickpeas and other peas and beans. These jelly noodles are sometimes prepared rather dense and firm and cut in thick pieces, but, in my opinion, the best are like Málà Project’s—wobbly, airy noodle-like pieces that play so well with a classic Sichuan cold-dish dressing (photo above).
New York’s Málà Project serves up Sichuan food like you find in Sichuan, but it does so in a distinctly worldly style, where the atmosphere, service and cocktails are as important as the food. My friend Carla and I recently dined at Málà Project, catching up over drinks, appetizers, main course and digestif—and leaving some four hours later.
That might have been obnoxious of us had we been at the always-busy East Village location, but we were checking out the newer location of Málà Project near Bryant Park, and it was a mellow Monday evening. This Midtown branch is in a business district and is busier at lunch than dinner, our waitress explained during one of several fun conversations we had with her. We weren’t the only ones who took advantage of that vibe, as a big table of Asian diners next to us were there just as long as we were.
Plus, the staff encouraged us to linger, the bartender even buying us drinks as we chatted with him about the mala (chili and Sichuan pepper) rim he adds to one of his craft cocktails. So as you can see, it was an all around good time—and I’ve barely even mentioned the food yet.
You may be surprised the hang was so great, because here in America we are used to purely functional, brightly lit, quickly served-and-cleared Chinese dining. Not that there aren’t high-end Chinese restaurants, because there certainly are, all over the country, but few are destinations for a comfortable but cool night out.
That is changing. The day we ate at Málà Project, Eater New York coincidentally ran a long feature piece titled “How the East Village Turned Into NYC’s Hippest Chinese Dining Destination.” Málà Project is not the only East Village spot that mixes American style and service sensibilities with urban-China food trends for the best of both worlds. Other examples—almost all of them opened in the past two years—include Little Tong Noodle Shop (a fantastic Yunnan resto), Szechuan Mountain House, Hunan Slurp, Le Sia (mala crawfish), Tim Ho Wan (dim sum), The Tang (noodles) and Tang Hotpot (in the neighboring Lower East Side).
Many of these restaurants are run by young Chinese expats “bearing a sharp grasp of branding, ambience, and social media,” writes Jenny Zhang, and several of them pointed to Amelie Kang—a northern China native who came to America for culinary school and co-founded Málà Project when she was 23 with another young college grad—as the success story that paved the way. Now 26, Kang was recently named a finalist in Eater’s 2018 Young Guns, rising stars of the national restaurant scene.
(China Daily also wrote about the mini-boom in restaurants opened by Chinese college students and grads, not only in NYC but in university towns across the country, where Chinese student numbers are on the rise.)
For those who haven’t read my previous writing about it, we at The Mala Project blog are not affiliated with Málà Project the restaurant and never have been. About a year and a half after we launched the blog, the restaurant opened with a similar name. I had no problem with the association, because Málà Project specializes in Sichuan dry pot, and I love mala xiangguo, as that dish is also known. It is basically a large dish of ingredients of the diner’s choice stir-fried in a spicy sauce (heat level also of the diner’s choice) that resembles the taste of hotpot—in other words, it’s hotpot without the soup. I have two recipes (here and here) for it on the blog, and more variations to come.
(There was confusion among readers and diners, so when we launched our online Sichuan specialty store, we changed our name to The Mala Market and The Mala Market Blog to avoid that confusion. Unfortunately, changing social media names proved nearly impossible without losing all followers, so we retain The Mala Project name there, and the confusion continues….People are always tagging us about their great meals at our restaurant.)
From the quite long ingredient menu for dry pot, offering all manner of meat, veg, offal and noodle, we chose pork belly, lamb, chicken gizzard, squid, lobster balls, woodear mushrooms, celtuce, lotus root and sweet potato noodles. We ordered “spicy,” which was nicely hot but barely numbing, instead showcasing the couple dozen Chinese spices, some medicinal, used in Málà Project’s sauce. Their sauce is a mix of doubanjiang-based dry pot “secret sauce,” a chili pepper paste and a spice oil, all made in house by Chef Zilong Zhao, who has been with the restaurants since the December 2015 East Village opening.
Instead of eating Chinese-style, where everything comes at once, we ordered a couple of cold dishes (from choices that included classics like pig ear in chili oil, husband and wife lung slices, and mouth watering chicken feet) to enjoy with our cocktails, before getting to the main event. Never mind the unconventional timing, the dishes were pure Sichuan. We devoured the flash-fried spicy green peppers mixed with steamed eggplant strips and thousand year eggs in a vinegary sauce. And while we didn’t cry literal tears of joy, we did understand the sentiment in the name when we ate their version of mung bean noodles, called Liang Fen of Happy Tears on the menu.
Come to find out that Málà Project has put its own spin on the translation of shangxin liangfen as “happy tears.” According to this 2013 article in China Daily, the name is usually translated as “‘heartbreak jelly’ because it is so spicy that people are said to burst into tears when eating it.”
The article goes on to say that a restaurant in Chengdu claims to have invented shangxin liangfen and that it successfully acquired a trademark for shangxin noodles in 2005. The restaurant has since then spent a great deal of time suing local competitors for using that name, even though some restaurants claim the dish was actually invented during the Qing Dynasty.
Who knew that these slippery noodles had such a controversial history? Regardless, they sure go down easy.
Málà Project was kind enough to share their recipe for shangxin liangfen with us, and I’ve adapted it a bit for home cooking. Perhaps in honor of their translation, promising tears of joy instead of heartbreak, their version is not super hot. Of course you can control the heat to your own desire with the amount and heat level of your homemade chili oil. I have updated my original recipe for chili oil to include a spiced version, using a pro tip for infusing the oil with whole Chinese spices that I learned from Málà Project. It works wonderfully in this recipe.
Jelly noodles are surprisingly easy to make, once you settle on the ratio of starch to water that makes the density and shape you prefer. Mung bean starch is readily available at Asian markets, but I couldn’t find a Chinese brand and used a Korean one, and no one in the house could translate the instructions. So, following instructions found online, I first tried 1 cup starch to 4 1/2 cups water, but this made a very dense noodle, not to mention a very large batch. So then I tried 1/2 cup starch to 3 1/4 cups water, and this made for a much more flexible, appealing noodle—and a perfect serving size of about 600 grams.
Mung bean noodles themselves don’t have much taste and are really just a pleasing texture vehicle for the sauce. Another thing to know is that they don’t absorb sauce easily, so it’s a good idea to cut them into quite thin strips (more thin than I did in these photos) to make sure they have sufficient sauce coverage. This also means you can make them ahead and let the noodles sit in the sauce for an hour or more without them going soggy. Leftover sauced noodles are still good even the next day.
This sauce is a straightforward chili oil, vinegar sauce, so don’t forget to top them with something colorful (scallions, cilantro, chopped fresh chili) and something crunchy (friend peanuts or soybeans). And perhaps a dusting of Sichuan pepper. Once you’ve mastered liangfen, you can utilize the Sichuan pantry to sauce them with anything that makes you cry happy tears.
Liangfen of Happy Tears (Shangxin Liangfen, 伤心凉粉) From NYC's Málà Project
- ½ cup mung bean starch
- 3¼ cups water, divided
- 1 small, slim garlic clove
- 2 tablespoons chili oil (clear, without flakes)
- 2 tablespoon Zhenjiang black vinegar
- 1½ tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 1½ teaspoons sugar
- scallions, minced
- peanuts, roasted or fried and smashed into small bits
- Mix the mung bean starch with 1 cup of the water in a measuring cup with a pour spout until the starch has dissolved.
- Bring the remaining 2 1/4 cups of water to a boil in a medium sauce pan. When it begins to boil, lower heat to medium-low and slowly stream in the mung bean starch slurry while whisking vigorously. The mixture will begin to thicken quickly. After all the slurry is added, cook for about 1 minute longer, whisking continuously so that lumps don't form. Pour and spoon the thick jelly into a 9-inch square cake pan (or similar size bowl) and set it aside to cool and firm up.
- Press the garlic clove through a press or smash to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Mix the garlic paste with 2 tablespoons water and allow it to sit at room temperature while the noodles cool.
- When noodles are set, which will probably be within 1 hour, turn them out onto parchment paper or a cutting board. Use a knife to cut the block of jelly into noodle shapes, about 1/4 inch wide and deep and 3 inches long. Or to your desired shape and size! Thin is better, since they don't absorb sauce easily.
- Mix the sauce ingredients in a measuring cup or bowl: chili oil, Zhenjiang vinegar, Chinese light soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar and garlic water. Stir until slightly emulsified.
- Pile the noodles nicely in a serving bowl and pour the sauce over them. Garnish with scallions and peanuts and serve at room temperature.
Perfect recipe, so enjoyable! Never have enough of your sauces, Mouth-Watering chicken, Dan Dan Noodles (ohhh, so delicious, never found quite the same elsewhere, anywhere, to be kept and savoured for ever…). You master malà, for the benefit of all of us!
Thank you so much for this kind message! People rarely comment on blogs anymore, so it’s a treat to hear from someone here with happy experiences. Appreciate it!
Thank you very much for all infos on such food. I have never tasted them although I have seen them very often in eating places and supermarkets in China. Your recipes are all very tempting and saliva drooling. I must make sure to eat them the next time I see them. Black vinegar is my favourite.My deep appreciation for showing this delicious noodle.
Thank you for the lovely thoughts! I’m so glad you are enjoying our site.
Cook from Los Angeles – been craving these for a while and have been wanting to make my own. Thanks for sharing the great written piece and recipe 🙏.
Thank you for reading the whole piece! I hope the recipe satisfies your craving.
I should have thanked you last year for this great recipe. My wife is Chinese and she introduced me to liangfen. I have now made this recipe for our extended family at least six times, every holiday and birthday since we got married. Everybody loves it!
I love this! You’re starting a great family tradition. Thank you for letting us know.