Monday, December 7, 2015

My favorite noodles: dandan mian

This is probably the one thing I could eat every day for a week and still want more: Dandan Noodles. A creamy, crunchy, soft, crisp, nutty, spice-flecked, tart, sweet, and savory sauce coats each strand with luscious flavor. It’s like a whole spectrum of things for the mouth to play with.

My gold standard for this dish was made at a small stand in Qing Guang Market, a warren of tiny dark alleys off of Chongqing North Road in Taipei. I’d get off at the bus stop there as often as I could manage and make a beeline for Caves Bookstore, which had shelves full of pirated English language books. They had classics, modern bestsellers, and shelves full of weird titles that always made me wonder who in their right mind would ever pick them up, much less write them. I still have my first hardback copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Claiborne's New York Times cookbook, and The Joy of Cooking more for sentimental reasons than anything else, as I read those so many times in those incarnations that I could never bear giving them up. In spite of that, those reproductions were really bad – just lousy photocopies that turned any illustrations into mud – but it was just about the only way to get anything to read in English at that time, so I was a regular customer.
Homemade chile sauce - always a great idea

One day I had the pleasure of squiring the former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art around town as his interpreter, as he was the guest of the National Museum of History where I worked. I told the elegant Mr. Thomas Hoving how much I’d loved his books, particularly King of the Confessors, which had just come out. Bad idea. He asked me where I possibly could have gotten ahold of it in such a short period of time, and I joyfully admitted to having bought an illegal copy. I offered to give it to him as a sort of weird memento of his trip to the pirated book capital of the world, but Mr. Hoving looked determinedly out the window, the air in the cab dropped around 30 degrees, and we spent the rest of the ride in a strained silence. I shelved my idea of asking him for a job at the Met.

Sichuan hot bean sauce
Anyway, back to the noodles. This lady in the market made the best version I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve worked hard over the years to reproduce it. You of course can play with the ratios as much as you like, particularly since things like chile oil and goop, soy sauce, peanut butter, vinegar, and all the other condiments have a wide range of flavors, and also because our mouths are just so different. What this means in the short run is that what makes me thrilled to the core might seem less than perfect to you. And so you should feel free to make this dish your very own.

So here, without more ado, is my personal recipe for what I think are now the best Dandan Noodles in the world:

Dandan noodles
Dàndàn miàn 擔擔麵
Serves 2 to 4 as either a main meal or generous side dish

2 tablespoons chile oil plus 1 tablespoon of the goop (if you like it spicy), or else use 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
8 ounces ground fatty meat (pork, beef, chicken, or turkey)
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons Sichuan fermented hot bean sauce (la doubanjiang)
¼ cup chopped Sichuan pickles (see Tips)
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons toasted sesame paste
2 tablespoons nut butter (peanut butter, almond butter, etc.)
About 1/2 cup hot water
2 tablespoons black vinegar
The crunchy garnish
1 tablespoon sugar

2 quarts boiling water
1 pound dried noodles of some sort (thick or thin, wheat or rice, white or wholegrain, whatever); I prefer very thin wheat pasta here, like capellini

¼ cup chopped toasted peanuts
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
Leaves of 2 green onions, thinly sliced
Blanched greens (like celtuce leaves or spinach), or shredded cucumber

1. This dish can be made ahead of time up through Step 2; refrigerate the meat and sauce if you are not using them right away. Place a wok over medium-high heat, and as soon as it is hot, swirl the oil around inside to coat the iron. Add the goop and ground meat to the oil and break it up with your spatula. As it starts to turn from pink to gray, sprinkle in the garlic and toss these together over the heat until the meat is about half browned. Scoot the meat and garlic up the sides of the wok so that the oil dribbles back down to the bottom before adding the bean sauce to the oil. Stir this around over the heat to cook it through, and then toss in the pickles, rice wine, soy sauce, and sugar. Quickly boil the seasonings down to a thick syrup, toss the meat with it, and then scrape it into a small work bowl.

2. To make the sauce, rinse out the wok and set it over medium heat. Mix the sesame paste and peanut butter in the wok with just enough hot water so that they smooth out and have the texture of sour cream. Add the rest of the sauce ingredients, bring it to a boil, and then toss in the meat mixture. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding whatever you think it needs, be it more peanut butter, chile oil or goop, vinegar, etc. Remove the wok from the heat.

3. About 10 minutes before serving, bring the pot of water to a full boil and add the dried noodles. Stir the noodles as the water comes back to a boil so that they do not stick together. Simmer the noodles according to package directions, or until done to your liking.

4. Toss the drained noodles (reserve a cup or so of the pasta water) in the wok with the hot sauce. Then, divide the noodles between two large soup bowls and reserve the pasta water. Add about ¼ cup of the boiling pasta water to each bowl (more if you like the noodles soupier), and sprinkle the tops of the bowls with the peanuts, sesame seeds, and green onions. Arrange some blanched greens or the cucumber on the edge of the noodles. Serve and eat immediately, adding more hot pasta water to your noodles if they start to get dry.
Yibin city's famous yacai


The traditional pickle for this dish is from Sichuan and is known as yácài 芽菜, which is yet another type of pickled mustard leaf. Because beansprouts are sometimes called yacai, most people refer to this pickle as Sìchuān yácài 四川芽菜 (after the province) or 宜賓芽菜 Yíbīn yácài (after the town most connected to this seasoning). Yacai has a nice crunch to it and, to my mouth at least, has a more delicate range of flavors to it that works especially well in dishes like this one. 

If you look at the last photo here, you can see another reason why this pickle is so tasty: it's bathed in a rich soy sauce that gives it all sorts of deep flavors.

A tangle of yacai
The other standby pickle is Sichuan pickled tuber (zhàcài 榨菜), which provides a relatively one-note saltiness. However, the tuber is much more common in markets (find it in sealed plastic bags, in cans, even in open bins at times), and so use what you have here.

My husband loves this topped with a fried egg or two. Just saying.

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