Ma’s Sichuan Liangmian (四川凉面) Spicy Cold Noodles
Ma’s Signature Potluck Dish
If there’s one dish my mother is known for at potlucks, it’s spicy Sichuan 凉面 (liángmiàn), “cold noodles” in translation. The nature of this beloved 小吃 (xiǎochī) snack in Sichuan is such that everyone knows the dish on sight—and taste. Chewy but not sticky, springy and not slick, sour and spicy and cooling and fragrant all at once, a simple bowl of Sichuan liangmian makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
If you host often, bringing nothing but cold noodles as your contribution to a close gathering may sound borderline impudent (the apparent lack of effort, so disrespectful!). But the nature of Ma’s liangmian is that it is so good, and no one else ever makes anything like it. If they try, their noodles are sticky, or the storebought chili oil is lackluster, even the cut of the scallions is discordant. And maybe it’s also that no practical Asian parent would consider boiling noodles just to wait to let them grow cold before eating. In either case, liangmian is not their (or our) everyday dish.
Thus, somehow, over many years of Bible study potlucks, the people began craving Ma’s liangmian. On the occasions she’s tried bringing anything else, or opted to sit out, the churchwomen have spoken out. Where are the noodles?!
I’ve arrived to tell you that the noodles, my friends, are here. Infinitely multipliable, springing to life from the dark of your pantry, car/ travel-friendly and requiring no(!) microwave or oven time before serving, Sichuan liangmian are a dish you need in your back pocket.
How to choose and cook noodles for Sichuan liangmian
Fresh alkaline wheat noodles, springy and chewy with a pleasant al dente bite, are the base of Sichuan liangmian. In their absence, however, there are dried Wenzhou 碱水面 (jiǎnshuǐ miàn), alkaline wheat noodles. They’re the closest we can get to fresh, and they’re also nonperishable, making them more useful for home cooks by far.
The trick with cooking up noodles that are later served cool: 1) don’t cook all the way through, and 2) don’t let them stick together. Chinese cooks achieve this by boiling until barely al dente, straining the noodles, lifting the drained noodles to aerate, and fanning cool before immediately tossing in oil. Note: if you’re preparing noodle portions for only 1-2 people, they will cool sufficiently just from lifting with a pair of chopsticks, tongs or salad serving utensils.
Take care not to overmix freshly drained noodles! Minimizing handling while rapidly cooling the noodles keeps the surface starches from leaching out (“脱粉,” tuō fěn). These gelatinized starches are what make pasta water an excellent thickener and partner for sauce coatings, but in a sauceless dish, the undesired pastiness can “glue” together warm pasta. You could rinse the noodles under cold water to wash away excess starch, but then the dressing wouldn’t cling as well. (Although this certainly works in a pinch and won’t change the taste.)
Only once the noodles have cooled should you mix in the cooked-off caiziyou (or raw vegetable oil, if caiziyou is unavailable).
Preparing ingredients and serving the noodles
The three dominant flavors of Sichuan liangmian are 酸 (suān) sour, 甜 (tián) sweet and 辣 (là) spicy. Black vinegar contributes sourness, a little bit of white sugar brings out the base flavors, and homemade chili oil makes everything pleasantly spicy. However, Chinese people also consider ginger and garlic 辣 (là), “spicy.” The saying “姜辣嘴, 蒜辣心 (jiāng là zuǐ, suàn là xīn)” translates to “ginger makes the mouth spicy, garlic makes the heart spicy.” This is due to their warming properties in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
To best incorporate these flavors in quickly assembled street food dishes like noodles and dumplings, Chinese cooks use ginger and garlic water. The minced ginger and garlic are soaked in a bit of cool/lukewarm water, which carries the raw flavors throughout the liquid. This way, each bite of sauced up noodles is evenly garlicy and gingery. It’s easier to mix with the other ingredients, and a little goes a long way. For liangmian, the desired ratio of ginger to garlic is a little less than 1:1.
Oils are incredible aromatic carriers in food, not just perfume, which explains why Ma’s liangmian always makes everyone salivate in anticipation. Besides fragrant, fresh chili oil, the combination of The Mala Market’s cold-pressed, small-mill Cuizi roasted sesame oil (new!) and Yaomazi’s famous first-grade, cold-pressed tengjiaoyou (green Sichuan pepper oil) make this dish sing.
If you are preparing this dish potluck style (as pictured), assemble the ingredients together in a large bowl and toss to mix. (In the normal way of serving this dish, a minced scallion garnish is preferable for dressing individual bowls. However, when we prepare this for a potluck, we want every guest to experience the same flavors whether they’re being served first or last. So instead of only adding scallions as the garnish, which inevitably gets unevenly distributed, we thinly slice them on a noodle-compatible diagonal and toss with the rest of the ingredients.)
How to serve liangmian for people you really like and want to impress, Chengdu-style (optional)
This requires 1) individual serving bowls and 2) a lot of confidence (the kind of dinner-party-hosting confidence that likely already lends you toward this serving style). Blanch fresh mung bean sprouts (approx. 1/3 the dry weight of the noodles) in boiling water and add a small bed of sprouts in the bottom (and it must be the bottom, where the sauce pools!) of each bowl first. Layer portions of the cooled noodles in each bowl, then spoon an appropriate amount (to taste) of each dressing ingredient atop each serving. Garnish with scallions and any other optional toppings. Toasted/fried peanuts, pulled chicken breast and slivered cucumber are all popular.
Admittedly, this serving style works best if you know the taste you’re going after. If it sounds inefficient to guesstimate/taste-check every ingredient for a crowd, there’s no shame in leaving it to the aunties and uncles who have been doing it for years! After all, aside from the choice and preparation of ingredients, this is the main act that sets every noodle stand apart. How vendors 拌 (bàn) their noodles—which encompasses taste, texture/mouthfeel, proportion and all the other elements of a highly slurpable bowl, much more than just the action of physically mixing in a dressing—is a point of pride.
For a much easier approach: Mix together all the dressing ingredients besides the scallions. Layer portions of blanched sprouts and cooled noodles in each serving bowl, then spoon an equal amount of the dressing mix atop each serving. Garnish with scallions and any other optional toppings.
Personally, I stick with the potluck-style, pre-mixed approach because it’s less wasteful (in serving size for the former, and premium ingredients for the latter). It can be hard to get the flavor and quantity right in individual serving bowls, and when you do there’s often a lot of leftover dressing pooled at the bottom. When I’m using really good Mala Market stuff, I cringe wasting even a drop. If you pre-mix the dressing, you can save any leftovers for your next meal!
To make the chili oil used in this dish, see Kathy’s Traditional Sichuan Chili Oil recipe. Or, for the ultra-mouthwatering 香辣 (xiānglà)/fragrant-hot hongyou version, see the Aromatic Sichuan Chili Oil recipe!
Ma's Sichuan Liangmian (四川凉面) Spicy Cold Noodles
- pair of chopsticks, tongs or salad serving utensils
- fan (or magazine, folded newspaper etc)
- 20 grams fresh garlic, minced (approx. 4-6 cloves)
- 15 grams fresh ginger, minced (approx. 1 thumb)
- ½ tablespoon lukewarm water more as needed
- 200 grams dried alkaline wheat noodle
- ½ tablespoon *cooked caiziyou (Chinese roasted rapeseed oil) *must be heated to smoking before use. Sub (uncooked) vegetable oil if unavailable
- 2 tablespoons homemade chili oil with flakes see note
- 1½ tablespoons hongyou (chili oil sans flakes) see note
- 2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar (Baoning preferred)
- 2 teaspoons Chinese light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- 1 teaspoon tengjiaoyou (green Sichuan pepper oil, Yaomazi preferred) optional
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil (Cuizi preferred)
- ½ teaspoon salt more or less to taste
- ¾ teaspoon white sugar more or less to taste
- ¼ teaspoon ground huajiao (Sichuan pepper) see note, double if not fresh
- ¼ teaspoon MSG
- 5-6 scallions, washed and drained, thinly sliced on the diagonal see note, extra for garnish if desired
- In a small bowl, add the cool/lukewarm water to just cover the minced garlic and ginger. Less is more. Set aside.
- Bring a medium pot of water to a boil and cook the noodles until 80% cooked or just barely al dente, no more than 5 minutes. While you are waiting for the water to boil, heat the caiziyou to smoking in a small pan. Set aside off the heat and let cool.
- Drain the cooked noodles and, working quickly, lift them with a pair of chopsticks, tongs or salad serving utensils while fanning them dry/cool. When they are cool to the touch, transfer to a large bowl and immediately toss with the cooked caiziyou. Avoid overhandling or mixing before the noodles have cooled, or they will stick together.
- Add the garlic/ginger water including the minced bits, chili oil with flakes, hongyou, black vinegar, soy sauce, tengjiaoyou, toasted sesame oil, salt, sugar, ground huajiao, MSG and slivered scallions. Toss and mix thoroughly. Transfer to large serving container and garnish with extra scallion if desired. Enjoy now or keep in fridge to chill until later!
when do you add the garlic and ginger?
Thank you for catching that, Robert! Add it with the rest of the dressing ingredients. I updated the piece. Hope you get to try it!