I have made this dish before, but son-in-law Chris asked for this hot and sour dish as his birthday meal. Last time, I made this fairly close to the traditional recipe. This time, I decided to add more meat and use some tricks I have picked up to boost the flavor.
Dàn dàn miàn (担担面; “peddler’s noodles”) are boiled noodles with a spicy 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: We were introduced to this dish by our students. There was a narrow street between our university and the university next door— both the street and the shop disappeared when the universities were united about fifteen years ago. In the center of the shop was a large bubbling pot with aromatic steam rising out of it, surrounded by low stools—you were expected to bring your own bowls and chopsticks. The cook sat next to the pot cutting noodles into the soup—one thing we noticed was that, the cook’s fingers on his left hand were all the same length (see the video). When the noodles rose to the top, he would scoop them into your bowl and ladle a splash of the soup over them. Our students told us that, when the pot was down to half full the cook would stop serving and restock the pot for the next day. They claimed that, the pot had not been empty or cold in one hundred years.
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.
One key to this dish is the use of zhà cài—榨菜; literally “pressed vegetable.” The preserved mustard stem adds its distinct flavor to make this dish “authentic.” If you live in a culinary wasteland—somewhere with no Chinese markets—you will have to get this ingredient by mail to make this dish correctly.
Karl’s Dàn Dàn Miàn II (Sichuan Peddler’s Noodles)
1 lb. coarsely ground pork
4 Tbs. light soy sauce, separate uses
4 Tbs. dark soy sauce, separate uses
2 Tbs. shaoxing rice wine, separate uses
1 Tbs. dark sesame oil, separate uses
1½ Tbs. corn starch mixed with 1 Tbs. water
1 Tbs. peanut oil
6 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane
¼ cup Chinese black vinegar
1½ Tbs. fresh ginger, grated on a microplane
1 Tbs. Karl’s Sichuan Chili Oil
2 tsp. roasted sesame paste (tahini)
1 package Zha Cai (Sichuan preserved vegetable, 3.5 oz.)
1 can (14.5 oz.) low sodium chicken broth
1½ lbs. fresh noodles
1 lb. baby bok choy, washed and trimmed (or your preferred vegetable)
½ cup peanuts, crushed, separate uses
2+ tsp. roasted sesame seeds, separate uses
5 green onions, sliced finely, separate uses
1. Put the pork into a mixing bowl and add two tablespoons of light soy sauce, two tablespoons of dark soy sauce, one tablespoon shaoxing, one half tablespoon dark sesame oil, the corn starch.
2. Mix the contents of the bowl 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.
Tip: Like many Chinese dishes, this recipe comes together very quickly. Prepare and measure all of your ingredients before you start cooking.
4. Form the meat in a large patty and fry it in the oil until it is well browned on both sides.
Tip: I used a cast iron Dutch oven which was a bit like the pot used in China.
Note: This is a Cook’s Illustrated browning technique. One of the Cook’s Illustrated chefs found that if you fried the meat in bits you ended up with hard pebbles when enough browning had occurred to enhance the flavor. By browning the meat in a large patty you get the flavor provided by the Maillard reaction, while still having most of the meat remaining moist and tender.
5. Transfer the meat to a plate to cool.
Tip: When it is cool enough break the patty into small bites. A pair of forks are very useful tools for this process.
6. Add the garlic to the pot and sauté it for one minute, until fragrant.
7. Add the remaining soy sauces, shaoxing, black vinegar, ginger, sesame paste, and preserved vegetables to the pork.
8. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until just boiling and then add the broth.
9. Add the noodles to the boiling water and cook for four minutes.
10. Add the bok choy and pork to the Dutch oven.
11. Continue simmering the soup for 2-3 minutes, until the vegetables are cooked.
Tip: I am using Shanghai bok choy, but you can use any green vegetable you like.
12. Add half of the peanuts, sesame seeds, and most of the green onions to the soup.
Tip: Save some of the green tops of the onion.
13. Drain the noodles and transfer them to a bowl.
14. Set the Dutch oven on the table and served the noodles on the side.
Tip: My diners could then serve themselves as much of each as they desired.
Note: Serve more chili oil, peanuts, sesame seeds and green onion on the side.