Monday, May 13, 2019

Tianshui noodles

The streets of Chengdu – the storied capital of Sichuan province – are filled with great snacks. In fact, they are so delicious that I can easily be tempted to eat nothing but street food when I’m there.

Almost all of these dishes are super simple and amazingly cheap, which is why, of course, hawkers love them. But their customers return again and again for the flavors and the textures.

One of the brightest examples of these street foods is Tianshui noodles. Literally, this means “sweetwater noodles,” and I’m always tempted to call them by that name, as it has a sort of cowboy twang to it.

But my guess is that these originated almost directly north of Chengdu in Gansu province, since the second-largest city there is called Tianshui, and also because so many Chinese noodle dishes tend to be Muslim in origin, and lots of Muslims have called Gansu home.

Whatever its origins, this is a deceptively barebones dish that relies on amazing flavors to mask the fact that you are being served something requiring little more than a few pennies’ worth of ingredients to make.

Lovely mouthfuls
Do not let the simplicity of this dish fool you. This is perfection in a bowl. But, as with so many things that are ostensibly simple, the achievement of a memorable bowl of Tianshui noodles requires a couple of basic, stellar ingredients:
-       fresh noodles, as thick and chewy as possible, made with nothing but flour and water
-       good chile oil with crunchy bits
-       sweet soy sauce
-       perfectly fresh toasted peanuts or sesame seeds
-       flavorful toasted sesame paste or peanut butter
-       fresh garlic, cilantro, and scallions.

So you see, if you really want to hit all your pleasure buttons with Tianshui noodles, you have to do a bit of prep work. I always have all of these ingredients on hand, which makes me think this is a spectacularly easy dish to whip up on a moment’s notice, but I realize that no everyone is as single-minded as me.

If you aren’t, you can certainly get away with buy all of the ingredients here, and they will give you a fair approximation of what it is like to dine in paradise. Then, for your next excursion, make your homemade chile oil, sweet sesame sauce, noodles, and so forth, and then taste something that Chinese angels probably ask for every week.

Tianshui noodles
Tiánshuĭ miàn  甜水麵
Sichuan cuisine
Simple-appearing sauce ingredients
Makes 2 servings

4 cloves minced garlic
2 tablespoons toasted sesame paste or peanut butter
¼ cup | 60 ml chile oil with toasty bits
¼ cup | 60 ml sweet soy sauce
Boiling water, as needed
1 teaspoon sea salt
8 ounces | 250 g fresh plain noodles (see Notes)
Around ¼ cup | 60 ml hot pasta water
¼ cup | 30 g chopped toasted or fried peanuts, or toasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons finely chopped scallions
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

1. In a small work bowl, mix together the garlic, sesame paste or peanut butter, chile oil, and sweet soy sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired.

2. Bring the water to boil in a large saucepan and add the salt and noodles. Bring the water to a full boil again and then immediately lower the heat to maintain and gentle simmer. Cook the noodles only until they are al dente, which is usually when they first start to float. Drain the noodles (reserve at least ¼ cup | 60 ml) and divide them between two large noodle bowls.

3. Divide the sauce between the bowls and toss the noodles gently so that each strand is coated, adding as much of the pasta water as needed to keep things silky smooth. Sprinkle on the nuts or sesame seeds, scallions, and cilantro. Serve hot.


Make your own noodles, if you wish, or buy them ready-made at a Chinese grocery store. The only requirements are that they be fresh (definitely not dried pasta of any kind), made with only flour and water, and are relatively thick, as this gives the dish personality.