Friday, April 16, 2010

Conquering Dan Dan Noodles

Wait... did I just make the best dan dan noodles I've ever eaten? I wasn't sure, so I took a second bite, feeling the numbing sensation envelop my lips. A third bite confirmed that these noodles were killer. Yet, I still couldn't quite believe that I had just made what was long my favorite Sichuan dish. It took minimal effort, in my own kitchen, far from the streets of Chengdu where this recipe originated.

Fuschia Dunlop's Land of Plenty contains two dan dan noodle recipes (pp. 88-89). One is oily and uses black vinegar, while the other, "Xie Laoban's," is thickened and made "saucy" by the addition of sesame paste (I used tahini, which Dunlop says is an acceptable substitute). The latter is by far my preferred version.

The prep is amazingly simple. For the sauce, all I needed was fresh-roasted, ground Sichuan pepper, light and dark soy sauce, tahini and a bunch of chili oil (I found a flavorful version from Sichuan Province). The meat topping called for ground beef, preserved vegetables and dried chiles. I didn't have ground beef, but there was a piece of pork shoulder sitting in my freezer that I defrosted then ground up in the Cuisinart. Before I ground the pork, I took some fat off the shoulder and rendered it for the mushrooms (see below). I also need to make another trip to Chinatown to find the proper "heaven facing" chiles. I just substituted some generic dried red chiles.

The preserved vegetables I had bought earlier that day had a strong salty kick, so I rinsed them off (as recommended) before adding them to the pork sauteing in my skillet. Due to the saltiness of the ingredients, this dish needed very little added seasoning, and I only sprinkled a little salt over the pork (no other salt was added and the dish turned out perfectly salty).

Ghetto mise.

With the prep completed, all that was left was to cook the noodles and assemble the ingredients. I used "Twin Marquis" brand fresh flat wheat noodles, which sounds like a type of Detroit-made car, but these noodles are actually common in Chinese markets. They only took three minutes to cook, and once they were finished I combined them with the sauce and meat mixtures.

Outstanding. Except for the above-mentioned substitutions, I was faithful to the recipe, but added some bok choy and green onions.

What made them so special? Like I said, I much prefer the saucy version. Most oily versions I've tasted are watery and boring, like noodles simply drenched in chile oil and nothing else.

What made the greatest difference, however, were the noodles. My two favorite versions, both saucy, are served at Grand Sichuan East (on 55th and 2nd Ave) and Lan Sheng (39th between 5th and 6th Ave). Each have positives and negatives, but for me the worst part about either dish was always the noodles, so soft and overcooked that I felt like a toothless old man gumming his food. Yet the noodles now suspended from my chopsticks-- stretched taut from the bowl-- were perfectly al dente and had absorbed the sauce perfectly.

For a mellower side, I made stir fried mixed mushrooms (p. 292). A very simple preparation with leftover mushrooms sauteed in rendered pork fat and garlic. Per the instructions, I added some chicken stock, let the mushrooms cook a little longer, then thickened the sauce with potato starch.

I always serve these in mushroom-colored bowls.

I love peanuts, and with a fresh bag of raw peanuts, I was eager to try out some of the peanut snacks. Here are deep fried crispy peanuts (p. 191). Dunlop recommends seasoning them with just salt and Sichuan pepper, but I added a little sugar and chile powder too. They were awesome, especially right out of the pan.

Next time: fish fragrant eggplant and whatever else looks interesting to make on a lazy Saturday afternoon.


  1. Those noodles look great!
    What brand of clili oil did you use and is it available in NYC?

  2. Michael: Thanks! The chile oil is made in Chengdu, the brand is Chengdu Chenghua Lion Pavilion Food Trading Co. I found it at a Chinese grocery on Mulberry just south of Canal on the west side of the street. I may have seen it elsewhere too, but I can't remember.

    Here's the pic:

  3. Haha, well looking at the label it says Tokyo Mart, but the listing comes up as Tongin Mart. It's at 91 Mulberry.

  4. Michael, I was at Hong Kong Supermarket on Hester and Elizabeth today, they have the chile oil for like $1.50 cheaper than at Tongin.

  5. Just stumbled across this post while trying to find the recipe to share with a friend who doesn't have the book. We've been cooking from Every Grain of rice all autumn, and it's fantastic. The first time we made the Xie Laoban version of dan dan noodles, we used tahini. The second time, we used sesame paste. There is an enormous difference in flavor. If you're going to go out and find a specific chili, and grind your own meat, do yourself a favor and buy sesame paste!