Monday, July 25, 2016

Dandan noodles chez moi

Back when I worked at the museum in Taipei in the early 1980's, my absolute favorite place to grab a bowl of that genius dish known as Dandan Noodles was in the crazy maze of shops called Qingguang Market on Zhongshan North Road. 

Fortunately for me, this was located right near a bus stop where I could hop off and fill up before transferring to a feeder line out to the suburbs. I couldn’t have planned it better myself.

The lady who ran the little stall that I soon came to view almost as a second home would greet me with a big smile and then not even ask what I wanted, but went to work blanching the greens and dipping her noodles into boiling water, and then layering a big ladle of rich, spicy, intensely aromatic sauce over everything in the thick, wide bowl that she’d set before me.

This dish was perfect and has always stood out as my gold standard. I did try (and love) many other Sichuanese noodle places in Taipei, especially Old Zhang’s Dandan Noodles near downtown, as well as another and much tinier hole in the wall out near where I once worked as an editor on a magazine out in the western district. But that dark little cubbyhole in the market always called me back with its siren song and the promise of an amazing snack that would settle me down for the long ride home.
Spicy, delectable beef
Over the years I’ve messed around with my initial guesstimate on that particularly beloved version and have come up with a winner. It’s beefy, but in a lovely gravelly way that grounds all of the many flavors. Like Dandan Noodles everywhere, it’s spicy and numbing for sure (and you can certainly dial these down if you like a more restrained spectrum), but the nuttiness in the sauce mellows out the nerve-popping elements and soothes your mouth. You end up feeling rather slapped around while being given the most wonderful back massage, if that makes any sense.

I always make a nice pot of this, as it hangs out helpfully in the fridge for whenever we need a quick meal. The sauce keeps everything fresh for quite a few days, so there’s no worry about it immediately going bad. And, of course, you can always freeze it in smaller portions, microwave what you need, and then toss it over some fresh noodles. This is fast food, but with passion.

Dandan noodles chez moi
Huángjiā dāndān miàn 黃家擔擔麵
Serves 8

¼ cup / 60 ml peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons coarsely ground dried chiles (or less, if you prefer this mild)
2 tablespoons / 30 ml finely chopped ginger (about 5 thin slices)
¼ cup / 40g raw sesame seeds
1 to 2 tablespoons Sichuan hot bean sauce (la doubanjiang)
2 teaspoons ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 pound / 450g lean ground beef
½ cup / 135g peanut butter (crunchy or smooth, salted or unsalted)
½ cup / 135g toasted sesame paste
¼ cup / 60 ml regular soy sauce
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons toasted chile oil, or to taste

Fresh wheat noodles, thick or thin (about ¼ pound / 110g) per person

Garnish (per bowl):
A small handful of spinach, cleaned carefully, and/or some julienned cucumbers, optional
1 teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons finely chopped green onions
¼ cup coarsely chopped peanuts

Gravelly, nutty sauce
1. Set the wok over medium-low heat and pour in the oil. Add the chile flakes and ginger, and then slowly cook these until the ginger threatens to brown. Add the sesame seeds, continue to fry these aromatics until the sesame seeds are golden, and the scoot most of this up the sides of the wok. Add the bean paste to the oil and stir it around to fry out the raw taste, and then raise the heat to high before adding the ground Sichuan peppercorns and beef. Stir-fry the beef constantly to keep it from burning, and break apart any lumps so that you are left with fine meaty pebbles. When the meat is browned and getting a tiny bit crunchy, scoop the meat out into a medium work bowl.

2. Start boiling the noodles as per package directions. In the meantime, set the wok back on medium heat and bring the peanut butter, sesame paste, soy sauce, garlic, sugar, and vinegar to a simmer. Stir this sauce until smooth, adding a bit of the noodle water as needed to make it a little bit soupy. Toss in the meat mixture, and then adjust the seasoning with more chile oil or anything else you like. 

Chewy, fresh noodles
3. When the noodles are done to your liking, scoop them out into your noodle bowls (reserve the hot water). If you’re using it, blanch the spinach and nestle it next to the mound of noodles. Arrange some cucumbers on the other side of the noodles, if you want. Ladle as much of the sauce on top as desired, add about ¼ cup / 60 ml of the pasta water into the bowl around the edges, and have a small bowl of the hot pasta water ready for each diner, as the noodles might soak up the sauce and become tacky as you work your way happily down to the bottom of the bowl. (This all depends upon the type of noodles you use – some are like little sponges, while others stay aloof.) Sprinkle the ground peppercorns, green onions, and peanuts on top in an attractive manner, and serve hot. Let each diner toss the noodles before digging in, and dribble in more pasta water as needed.


  1. Peanut butter and balsamic here is genius. Not only does it tweak the flavours in a really nice way, it also takes something that is stereotypically Chinese and transforms it into something possibly "All-American".

    Actually, I wonder what would happen if you substituted the sugar here with Grape Jelly...

    1. Now you have my mouth watering. A PBJ with chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. What an excellent idea, Sean!

  2. I made this over the weekend, and actually the meat from (1) goes quite well with unsweetened PB. Adding jam makes it a bit odd but still surprisingly pleasant.

    BTW you don't mention where you recombine the meat from (1) in the other steps. Do you combine the meat into sauce for the final meat sauce? Or do you assemble the sauce, noodle, and meat separately like the tradition dandanmian?

    1. Heh, you're a man after my own heart. I can really taste that jelly in there (in my mind, of course). Love your adventurous spirit!

      Yes, you combine the meat with the sauce. Thanks for the heads up.