This dish has become my “go to” dish for potlucks (as in “We’re having a potluck. Karl’s going to bring his Sichuan Noodles, isn’t he?) This is one of the dishes that I included in my niece’s wedding recipe book. Many members of both families provided their best recipes to start off Katie’s married life with good food.
We (Jan, Karl and Miriam) lived in Chengdu, Sichuan, P.R.C., in 1988. At every banquet we were taken to there were many plates to choose from, but Cold Sichuan Noodles was always on the table. This dish quickly became a favorite of all of the foreign teachers at our school.
In China, this dish was composed of mostly noodles, chili oil, and Sichuan pepper. The only vegetables in the dish were ginger and garlic, which the people of Sichuan eat in mass quantities. When we first arrived in China I was frequently laughed at in the free market for buying only a single bulb of garlic. In Sichuan, who would by less garlic than a jin (1.1 pounds)? At that time in China, vegetables were not safe to eat raw (for reasons best left unsaid) and the authentic version was a nearly pure starch dish. When we returned to America I wanted to get the flavor of this dish with a more California twist. I added green onions, cilantro and adapted the sauce to a more American taste. The addition of fresh greens is what makes this dish “California Style.”
Sichuan pepper (in Mandarin Hua Jiao—flower pepper, because it looks like a tiny flower) is a key ingredient to this dish and may be hard to find. It was actually banded in California for a couple of years because the agricultural board was afraid of a Chinese fruit fungus. Sichuan pepper is actually not a pepper but a tiny citrus fruit. Fresh Sichuan pepper should be dark reddish brown and very fragrant. If it is fragrant it should give the dish its distinctive taste. If the peppers are gray or not fragrant do not buy them. The final test of fresh Sichuan pepper is to check its other prime attribute. Take a single pepper and bite into it. Your mouth should start to tingle and your tongue and lips should start to go numb. The stronger this affect the fresher the Sichuan pepper. An alternate name for this pepper is “Numb Spice.” The numbing effect of Sichuan pepper allows you to eat foods with a lot of La Jiao (hot pepper) but still taste more than just “hot.”
Some flavors I simply could not replicate. In China, at the time, the only oil available for cooking was unprocessed rapeseed oil, which has a very strong flavor. At first, this oil seemed very strange to our western tastes, but now we find that no Chinese food in America tastes quite “right.” Processed rapeseed oil is sold in the US as the flavorless canola oil.
People like myself, who have been cooking for years, tend to forget that the techniques we take for granted are not second nature to everyone. One year I was making this dish for a party of Jan’s students. One of them offered to help and I gave her the green onions and asked her to “chop them fine.” Imagine my distress when she presented me with a bowl of neatly “chopped” half inch pieces of green onion. She simple did not know that “chopped fine” meant that she was to slice them into very small pieces. I however will never forget this lesson. Do not to assume culinary knowledge in an assistant where none may exist.
Karl’s Cold Sichuan Noodles, California Style
1 lb box Farfalle noodles (actually any noodle will do, but I like Farfalle as an easy to handle pasta for a salad)
1-2 Tbs. Sesame oil
1 bunch Green onion, separate uses
1 bunch Cilantro, separate uses
4-10 cloves Garlic (to your taste)
½ to 1 inch piece fresh Ginger
1 tsp. Sichuan pepper (may use more)
1/8-¼ tsp. Dried chili flakes (preferably Chinese and again to taste)
1/8-¼ tsp. White pepper
½ tsp. Sugar
3 Tbs. Soy sauce
1 Tbs. Shaoxing (Chinese cooking wine – spelling varies)
1 tsp. Black vinegar (may substitute rice vinegar)
2 tsp. Peanut or canola oil
In Chinese cooking it is important that your ingredients are prepped before you start cooking.
1. Boil noodles until al dente, pour into a colander, rinse in cold water and drain thoroughly. Sprinkle most of the sesame oil over the noodles and toss to coat the pasta evenly. Return pasta to the cooking pot.
2. While noodles are cooking, chop green onions fine (green parts should be no longer then 3/8 of an inch and white parts 1/8 of an inch). Set aside green parts separately.
3. Chop cilantro leaves coarsely and set aside with the green onion tops. Make sure that the cilantro stems are well washed and chop fine.
4. Chop garlic fine (You may use a garlic press). Set aside.
Tip: When we first got back from China I thought, “Americans, they won’t like a lot of garlic in this dish.” Over time I found out that I was wrong. The more garlic I put into it the more likely it was that the bowl would be empty by the end of the party.
5. Chop ginger fine and place in a small cup.
6. Sichuan pepper usually comes whole. Grind as fine as you can in a mortar and pestle. Add the chili flakes and white pepper. Continue to grind to a course power.
Tip: If you are using a spice grinder you may put them in at the same time.
7. Measure out and add to the cup with the ginger, the sugar, soy sauce, Shaoxing, black vinegar and any remaining sesame oil.
8. When noodles are cool. Put a skillet on a medium high heat and add the peanut oil. When the skillet is hot add the garlic and stir fry for 30 seconds. Add the white parts of the onion and the cilantro stems and stir fry for 1 minute. Scrape the vegetables to the edges of the pan and put the dry spices in the open space and stir fry for 5 to 10 seconds and then add the wet ingredients from the cup. Stir to mix the ingredients and simmer for 1-2 minutes.
9. Pour the sauce over the noodles and stir to coat the pasta evenly.
10. Add most of the green onion tops and cilantro leaves to the pot and mix well.
11. Place in a serving bowl and sprinkle the remaining greens over the top.