Thursday, January 3, 2013

The best zhajiang noodles in the world. Period.

Popular throughout most of northeast China, zhajiang noodles are almost like pasta Bolognese: this is basically a rich meat sauce balanced on top of chewy strands of dough. But there the comparison pretty much ends.

Zhajiang mian means “deep-fried sauce noodles,” which has always confused me. When I have given Chinese cooks the third degree about this, the answer is always that the sauce is “deep fried” before it is mixed with the meat. And I've invariably retorted, “But the sauce is ‘pan fried’ [jian], so this should be jianjiang mian, right?” and the reply I get is always a shake of the head and a frown, because the name simply doesn't make any sense. (It’s sort of like when Chinese people ask me to break down the meaning of hot dogs [regou, literally “hot dogs” – nothing lost in translation there], and I have to tell them that we really and truly don’t dine on puppies in the States, despite all misleading names to the contrary.)

It wasn't until very recently that I figured out the solution. You see, most folks think of this as from Beijing, and zhajiang noodles is believed by most to be the name this dish was originally christened with. But actually, I discovered, it comes from Manchuria, where it is known by the name zajiang mian 雜醬麵, or “mixed sauce noodles.” Zha and za sound very much alike, and perhaps there was some confusion upstream. Who knows what happened... all I know is that I now can sleep well at night.
Pork plus the secret ingredient

We've enjoyed endless variations on this dish, but I have to say that the recipe below is the best I have ever tasted. But as with great simple foods elsewhere, perfection demands a couple of very important requirements:

First, the pasta should be handmade and fresh. No dried noodles here, please. In fact, you should use pulled noodles, not rolled ones, because the stretching of the dough creates little tears along the strands that grab onto the sauce and then convey it to your eagerly awaiting mouth. 

All of that pulling and bouncing that goes on in creating lamian means that the gluten has been excited into a state of near hysteria (or as close to hysteria that pasta can get), which makes it astoundingly chewy and vibrant. And another thing: make the pasta flat and wide, if you can, because you really want the noodles to make a boisterous presence against all of that powerfully seasoned sauce. (More on pulled noodles and how to make them in the very near future...)

Second, don’t drown the noodles with sauce. You want a good balance of sauce to pasta so that your tongue is initially hit with the salty/sweet/meaty taste of the zhajiang, and then this is complemented by the subtly sweet noodles that act sort of like palate cleansers. The cucumber garnish does much of the same thing, but it is raw and slightly tannic, which provides even more contrast. (The brilliant emerald color satisfies the eyes, too.) Some people like to sprinkle green onions on top, and I would not be opposed to a few shards per bite, but don’t overdo it.

Frying the sweet wheat paste
Third, add the secret ingredient of this recipe, eggplant, as this ends up as creamy bits of heaven that make the meat even meatier. 

The idea for this addition came from the wonderful Chinese writer Liang Shih-chiu, who recalled in an essay called “Noodles” (Miantiao) that “our family once was taught by a lofty personage to add cubed eggplant when the sauce was almost done… and the secret lay in doing one’s best to make the sauce on the noodles not too salty.”

He was right on the money.

Zhajiang or zajiang, Beijing or Manchuria, this is soul-satisfying stuff.

Zhajiang noodles  
Zhájiàng miàn 炸醬麵 
Manchuria, Beijing
Serves 2 to 3 as a lunch or snack

Noodles and eggplant:
1 pound fresh, wide noodles, preferably hand-pulled
8 cups boiling filtered water
2 small eggplants
¼ cup peanut or vegetable oil

1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
8 ounces good quality ground pork
Gravelly meat and aromatics
½ medium onion peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons plain rice wine (mijiu)
6 to 8 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
3 tablespoons sweet wheat paste (see Tips)
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
¼ cup hot filtered water

1 Japanese, Persian, or pickling cucumber, trimmed and julienned
1 green onion, trimmed and julienned, optional

1. Prepare your own noodles or use storebought fresh ones, preferably something wide and chewy like paparadelle. Shake the noodles out onto a tea towel and loosen the strands. Cover them with a clean tea towel to keep them from drying out. Have the unsalted water in a pot on the stove with the lid on to keep it hot.

2. Clean and trim the eggplants and then cut them into ½-inch dice (about 1 cup) without peeling. Heat the oil in a wok on medium-high and fry the eggplants until they are browned all over. Remove them to a dish.

3. To prepare the sauce, heat the oil in a wok over medium-high and add the ginger, pork, onion, and garlic. Lower the heat to medium and cook them – stirring occasionally – until the onions are translucent. Raise the heat to medium-high again and fry the mixture until it has some browned edges.

Korean sweet wheat paste
4. Pour the rice wine in and stir it around quickly to stop the caramelization. Scoop the mixture up one side of the wok. Raise the heat to high; pour in the sesame oil into the bottom of the wok and add the sweet wheat paste. Stir the paste around in the oil to break it up into a smooth layer and to fry out any raw flavors. Add the soy sauce and sugar. Mix the meat mixture into the sauce and toss these around on the heat. Add the hot water and stir the sauce around to incorporate the water. Lower the heat to a simmer and let the sauce gently cook for 10 to 15 minutes; add the eggplant, taste and adjust the seasoning, and cook the sauce for another 3 minutes.

5. Just before serving, cook the noodles until done but still nice and chewy. Use a Chinese spider or slotted spoon to remove them to noodle bowls, but don’t pour out the noodle water. Ladle the sauce on top of each mound of noodles and garnish with the cucumbers and the optional green onions. Serve a soup bowl of the hot noodle water on the side to each person. Your diners should toss the noodles with the sauce and garnish so that there is a nice balance of fresh, sweet, salty, chewy, and soft in each bite.


Look, Ma, no beans!
Zhajiang is traditionally made out of steamed breads (plain mantou) that have been allowed to mold. These are then mixed with seasonings and the resulting mush ferments into a thick, rich sauce of the deepest, darkest brown.

The problem is that zhajiang is often translated as “black bean sauce” (see the photo to the right) or “sweet bean sauce” or something on that order, but no beans were injured during the making of this sauce. It should be called “sweet wheat paste,” as it is gently sweet and nicely savory. Check the ingredient list as here: it should mainly be wheat, water, caramel, and salt. If any beans or bean powder or soy sauce are mentioned, it should be as an afterthought.

The best brands are made in Korea, for my money. Excellent quality, balanced flavor, good texture… what’s not to love? 


  1. What kind of sesame oil do you use? Isn't one not supposed to cook the toasted variety over a high heat (as I would give a burnt taste)? Thanks!

    1. I use 100% toasted sesame oil from Japan, although Korea's are not bad, either. Be sure to check the ingredient list, as some manufacturers slip in cotton seed oil and other cheap fillers. If you do a lot of cooking, the large tins are a good buy and often can be found on sale, particularly at Korean grocery stores.

      Lots of conflicting information out there re using toasted sesame oil (TSS) for stir-frying. But the confusion might be due to the conflation of stir-frying with deep-frying. TSS has a high smoke point (which means that a bluish smoke becomes visible) of 410°F, and so it is great for stir-fries, but that is too low for deep-frying.

      I have used TSS for stir-fries for years whenever I want to emphasize the nuttiness of the oil. Solely using TSS also gives you the chance to use as little oil as possible in a dish, which is great for light things like snow peas, which should just have a very thin film slicking each pod to keep it from burning. If you stir-fry them first in another oil and then drizzle on the TSS, that just greases things up too much, in my opinion.

      Store the oil in a closed container; if the container is glass, keep in it a cool, dark cupboard. If you don't use this all that much, get smaller amounts and refrigerate the leftovers.