Dàn dàn miàn (担担面; “peddler’s noodles”) are boiled noodles with a spicy sesame/peanut sauce poured over them. The story goes that lunch peddler’s would carry a dàn dàn—a shoulder pole with a bucket on either end—with the cooked noodles in one bucket and the spicy sauce in the other. When you bought your lunch you were expected to provide your own bowl and the seller would put in some noodles and splash some of the sauce over them.
Note: Actually—at least 25 years ago when we lived there—you could see still the occasional peddler selling lunches just that way, although most of them had up-graded to a bicycle with a bucket on either side. The real entrepreneurs would have a bicycle “truck” piled high with tables, chairs and even a stove to set up an entire restaurant on the street corner in a manner of minutes.
Traditionally, this is a dry dish with just enough oily spicy sauce to coat the noodles—something you could slurp down quickly when you were out in the fields. It traditionally has just a little meat and vegetable, more as flavorings than anything else. Modern versions have upped the amounts of protein and vegetables and some even add broth to make it more soup like.
I am turning this recipe into more of a major side dish. It will have a little pork for flavor, but I will be adding Chinese broccoli and just enough broth to moisten the noodles. I do not want it to be a soup, but I want it to be a bit moister than oily dry noodles.
Some Sichuanese cooks do not heat the sauce ingredients at all. They just put the hot noodles on top and mix them together and then layer on meat and garnishes. I would like to take this recipe back to the original—two pots, one for the noodles and one for the sauce.
There is some debate over whether or not sesame paste and peanut butter should be used in this dish—or if it a Westernization. Peanut butter is too finely ground—as well as having added sugar and salt. I remember lightly ground/crushed peanuts being in the noodles I had in Chengdu and if there was sesame paste it was too little to be distinct under the over-powering flavors of the chili.
What there is no debate about is the use of zhà cài (榨菜; literally “pressed vegetable”) in this dish. The preserved mustard stem adds its distinct flavor to make this dish “authentic.” If you live in a culinary wasteland, you will have to get this ingredient by mail to make this dish correctly.
Note: You might make this dish Vegan by leaving out the pork and using vegetables broth. It might taste good, but it would not be Dàn Dàn Miàn.
After Dinner Note: This dish had the flavor of Sichuan, it came out close to what we remember. I did not end up serving the watermelon, we were all too full.
Karl’s Dàn Dàn Miàn (Sichuan Peddler’s Noodles)
1 Tbs. peanut oil
4 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane
1 Tbs. shaoxing rice wine
1 Tbs. Chinese black vinegar
1 Tbs. fresh ginger, grated on a microplane
2 tsp. Karl’s Sichuan Chili Oil
1 tsp. roasted sesame paste (tahini)
1 package preserved vegetable (3.5 oz.)
1 can (14.5 oz.) chicken broth
2 lbs. fresh noodles
½ lb. baby bok choy, washed and trimmed
½ cup peanuts, crushed, separate uses
2+ tsp. roasted sesame seeds, separate uses
3 green onions, sliced finely, separate uses
1. Put the pork into a bowl and add one tablespoon of light soy sauce, one tablespoon of dark soy sauce, one teaspoon dark sesame oil, one tablespoon corn starch and 2 tablespoons of water.
2. Mix these together well and let the mixture rest for at least 15 minutes.
3. Set a large pot of water to boil and put one tablespoon of oil into medium pot.
4. Fry the pork in the oil, breaking it up into small pieces. Cook the pork until it is well browned.
5. Add the garlic to the pot and continue cooking for 30 seconds.
6. Add the remaining soy sauces, black vinegar, ginger, chili oil, sesame paste, and preserved vegetables to the pork.
Note: I am going very light on the chili oil for this dish. I have been served a bowl of dan dan that was bright red from the oil floating on top. For those diners who like it hot, I am serving plenty more of the chili oil on the side to add as it pleases them.
7. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until just boiling and then add the broth. Remove the pot from the heat.
8. Add the noodles to the boiling water and cook for four minutes.
Note: One day I will have the confidence to try to make my own cut noodles for this dish.
9. Add the bok choy to the noodles and cook for 2-3 minutes, until the noodles are cooked through and the vegetables are done.
Tip: I am using these cute little bok choy (1-2 inches) that I found at Lion Market, but you can use any green vegetable you like.
10. When you add the vegetables to the noodles, return the sauce to the heat and cook until just hot.
11. Add half of the peanuts, sesame seeds, and most of the green onions to the sauce.
Tip: Save some of the green tops of the onion.
12. Drain the noodles and vegetables and transfer them to individual bowls.
13. Pour the sauce over the noodles and serve or allow the diners to serve the sauce themselves at the table.
Tip: Serve more chili oil, peanuts, sesame seeds and green onion on the side.