Monday, February 26, 2018

Yibin's nutty noodles


This is one of those dishes that make you smile at first bite. The ingredients read like a kid’s list of perfect foods: noodles, peanuts, walnuts, and a little bit of pickles. I mean, toss in a sticky sauce, and who isn’t going to love eating this?

It’s a classic street food from the city of Yibin in Sichuan Province. It has a weird name in Chinese (ranmian means “burning noodles,” but no one has ever convinced me that this makes any sense whatsoever—nothing is being set on fire here, so I’m sticking with “nutty noodles”). 

Moreover, this dish is something that even the fussiest of eaters will all agree is startlingly delicious. In fact, I’ve never known of anyone who hasn’t polished off their bowl and then scraped sadly away at the bottom, trying to find a few more of the crunchy crumbs to nibble on.
Delectable crumbs at the bottom

Let’s get the basics out of the way. I’m going to give you the classic recipe, but know that you can use any kind of noodles here and any kind of nuts. They are the main ingredients, yes, but this is the sort of thing that rewards experimentation. Want pecans and macadamias? Be my guest. Love buckwheat noodles? Couldn’t agree with you more.

The only item that you might have trouble hunting down if you don’t live somewhere near a Chinese market is the Sichuanese pickled vegetable known as yácài 芽菜. But don’t worry. Any leafy Chinese pickle will do in a pinch—like snow vegetables (xuélĭhóng 雪裏蕻) or Tianjin’s winter vegetable (dōngcài 冬菜) or even Taiwanese pickled mustard (Táiwān suāncài 台灣酸菜)—since the sole requirement is that there be a touch of slightly tart saltiness in the mix.

If all else fails, chop some Sichuanese pickled tubers (zhàcài 榨菜), or even a cornichon or some capers, into a fine dice, rinse off most of the salt, and you’re ready to go.

Toasted sesame, walnuts, & peanuts
What I’ve found that the pasta I really like here are thin, dried egg noodles. The egg in there makes the noodles fairly tensile and so able to hold up to the onslaught of all sorts of crunchy things tumbling around in there, along with a vibrant sauce. 

But any sort of noodle will do, as long as you don’t overcook it. Just make sure it retains its personality. Floppy pasta won't cut it. 

You can find this dish all over Sichuan, but to my mind nothing comes close to a homemade bowl of these nutty noodles. You get to use a good handful of nuts in here, rather than a miserly smattering, and so each strand of pasta becomes coated with crunch. Plus, homemade chile oil turns up the volume in so many luscious ways. 

Honestly, extra Brownie points are awarded if you have some excellent homemade chile oil (and sweet soy sauce) on hand, as things will just be that much better. Rather than a boring one-note oil that offers little more than heat, the homemade stuff layers on even more flavors and nuances.

Be sure that the nuts and sesame seeds are fresh. That would be my only request. They are the stars of this particular show, so taste them and really make sure. And then prepare to be wowed when they strut their stuff in this marvelous bowl of noodles.
Chewy pasta

Yibin nutty noodles
Yïbīn ránmiàn 宜賓燃麵
Sichuan
Serves 2 as a main dish, or 4 as a side or a snack

¼ cup | 40 g finely chopped toasted peanuts (or sunflower seeds or other seeds or nuts)
¼ cup | 30 g finely chopped toasted walnuts (or pecans or other nuts)
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
¼ cup packed | 30 g Sichuan yacai pickled vegetables (see headnotes for substitutes)
2 tablespoons | 30 ml toasted sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1½ tablespoons sweet soy sauce, or 1½ tablespoons regular soy sauce plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1½ tablespoons chile oil (preferably homemade), or to taste
6 ounces | 180 g dried egg noodles (or whatever noodles you’d like)
2 green onions, green parts only, finely chopped

Super easy & amazingly good
1. If your nuts and seeds have not been toasted yet, do that first. The easiest way is to dry-fry them separately in a wok (meaning without any oil) over medium heat until they taste and smell toasty. Chop the nuts and any larger seeds into pieces not much larger than the sesame seeds, as this way they will mingle nicely with the noodles.

2. Rinse the yacai pickle (or whatever pickle you’re using), squeeze it dry, and chop it finely. Bring about 1 quart | 1 liter of water to a boil in a medium saucepan while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

3. Pour the sesame oil into a wok and set it over medium heat. Add the yacai and garlic. Stir these around until they smell divine, and then add the sweetened soy sauce (or soy sauce plus sugar), as well as chile oil to taste. Check the flavor levels and add more of whatever you like to make the sauce sing.

Crush the nuts before chopping them
4. Boil the dried noodles according to the package directions. Drain them and then toss them in the sauce over medium heat to reduce the sauce and to fully bathe each strand, about 3 minutes. Divide the noodles among your bowls. Sprinkle the nuts and seeds on top, as well as the chopped green onion. Serve hot. Each diner should admire this masterpiece before tossing the crunchy bits into the noodles.

Tip

Soy sauces and sweet soy sauces vary in depth of flavor and saltiness, so add less of either the first time around if you are not sure; you always can add more later.

Use the side of your Chinese knife to first crush the nuts before chopping them. You'll find that the nuts will be easier to corral that way. 

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