Monday, May 9, 2016

Sugar snap peas, Calvin Lamborn, & North China

Noodles are one of my go-to delights, no matter where I find myself on the planet, or even in my own neighborhood, for that matter. 

Something about hot pasta just makes me happy. That must be one of the main reasons I so love the foods of North China, because they come up with some of the most inventive, satisfying, and easiest ways to delight both my mouth and my stomach without breaking the bank.

Today’s recipe shows just how carefree and delicious this habit has become for me. Just to give you a bit of background, I happen to adore what the Chinese call “tossed noodles” (bànmiàn 拌麵), while my husband is a sucker for soup noodles. I try to be fair in the kitchen and give him his favorites on a regular basis, but whenever it’s up to me or I’m left to my own devices, it will be tossed noodles for sure. The reasons for this are simple: The textures become more focused that way, since nothing is swimming around in a broth, so neither the pasta nor the toppings need to fight for my attention. And second, some sort of rich, savory sauce coats each strand to different degrees, so every mouthful is a bit different.
Chinese pasta

This classic home-style recipe is probably from Hebei (the province surrounding Beijing and Tianjin) or Shanxi. It’s definitely not restaurant food, but rather something you would enjoy at a little mom n’ pop stand or at your grandma’s. The ingredients are all cheap, and you can play with the ratios and even sub out one thing for another without wrecking the beauty of this bowl of noodles.

It probably started out as a Hui Muslim dish, but over the years this has morphed into something more distinctly Han Chinese, for you have pork here instead of beef or lamb, soy sauce and rice wine driving the flavor profiles, and lots of green vegetables to add crunch and color. This is food cross-pollination at its finest.

About those vegetables: String beans are traditionally the veggie of choice here, but today you will instead see sugar snap peas given some very special attention. I selected them for three reasons: they are in season now, they are so sweet and crispy that for my money they work even better as the crunchy element in this dish, and most important of all, I had the chance to meet the lovely man who bred the sugar snap pea, Calvin Lamborn.
Sugar snap peas

We came across each other over an array of Turkish food at the Terroir Symposium in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, and I was bowled over by how nice he and his son, Rod Lamborn, turned out to be. The elder Mr. Lamborn is a renowned plant breeder who has specialized in snow and snap peas, and as they are two of my very favorite vegetables, this was a real delight for me. Plus, he gave me a pen that I will always treasure.

Thank you, Calvin, for creating something truly amazing, and thanks to Jim Poris of Food& (formerly Food Arts) for making sure great people like him were properly honored at Terroir. What a treat.

Me & Calvin Lamborn

Tossed noodles with snap peas and pork
Tiándòu bànmiàn 甜豆拌麵
Hebei and Shanxi
Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish

4 ounces/100g pork belly
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)

8 ounces/230g/2 cups sugar snap peas (see Tips)
1 quart/1l boiling water, as needed
3 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorn oil, or plain peanut or vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 green onions, trimmed and chopped
2 dried Thai chiles, seeded and crumbled, optional

5 ounces/140g (or more) fresh noodles (see Tips)
Marinated pork belly
1. If you start this dish a day ahead of time, the pork will take on an almost cured flavor from the marinade that I really like. Remove any skin on the belly and slice it thinly against the grain into pieces about an inch wide. Toss the pork with the soy sauce and rice wine, cover, and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes or up to a day or so.

2. Trim and string the peas as needed and cut any long ones in half so that they are about the same size. Bring the water to a full boil in a pan and toss in the peas. Stir them around, and when they turn a bright green and have just barely lost their raw taste, scoop them out into a colander set in the sink, but leave the water in the pan, as you are going to use it to cook your noodles. Rinse the peas quickly with cool water to stop the cooking and let them drain.

Green onions - the North's favorite
3. Set a wok over high heat. Swirl in the oil and add the garlic, green onions, and optional chiles. Toss these around for a few seconds to release their fragrance and then add the pork and any leftover marinade. Stir-fry the pork until it loses all its pink color, which will just take a few minutes. Remove the wok from the heat.

4. Bring the pot of water to a full boil again and then sprinkle in the noodles so that they do not clump together. Stir them gently until the water comes to a boil again, and then reduce it to maintain a simmer. While the noodles are cooking, set out however many noodle bowls you need near the stove, along with a Chinese spider or slotted spoon. When the noodles have cooked to your liking, use chopsticks and the spider or spoon to transfer them to the wok, and then discard the water. Immediately return the wok to high heat and add the blanched peas. Toss these together until the sauce comes to a boil. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and then divide the noodles among your bowls. Serve hot.


You may use snow peas or tender string beans here, if you like.

The traditional pasta for this type of dish is freshly pulled noodles, or lāmiàn 拉麵, but feel free to sub in whatever you like or whatever is available or whatever looks good. I would recommend fresh pasta over dried here, as its texture will be a bit softer and luscious.


  1. A belated welcome to Toronto!

    1. Oh no, didn't know you were there!

    2. No worries. Hope you enjoyed your visit here!