Dan dan noodles is one of those quintessential Sichuan dishes that you must try at least once if you're a fan of anything spicy. The chili-laced vinegar and sesame sauce is quite possibly one of the finest sauces that ground pork or beef can ever be cooked with.
Now, if you were to have dan dan noodles in Sichuan province, the noodles would come swimming in a chili-laced broth that is almost impossible for mortals (non-Sichuan-natives) to slurp. I like to do a less saucy version that tones the heat down slightly while still maintaining flavor. The noodles in this recipe are spicy enough for someone who doesn't mind a little heat in their food. But please feel free to adjust the amount of chili oil to your preferences. And slurping is, of course, encouraged.
The first time I ever had dan dan mian was years ago in New York's East Village. It was one of those insanely hot and muggy July days, and my friend Shar and I were walking on St. Mark's Place, sweaty even in tank tops and skirts.
"Where do you want to have lunch?," I asked.
"Anywhere with AC," was the reply.
We ducked into the St. Mark's branch of Grand Sichuan and sure enough, there was a generous amount of AC, along with a particularly surly waitress. We ordered quickly just to get her to go away.
We ate about 4 or 5 dishes, but I don't remember any except the dan dan noodles and cold cucumber salad. I remember the dan dan noodles because it was one of the spiciest dishes had ever tasted, at that point. I remember the cucumbers because, despite also being spicy, they tamed the heat in my mouth from the dan dan noodles.
I gulped about 4 or 5 glasses of water during the meal. The food was actually pretty good, but I, being a newbie to Sichuan food, couldn't fully appreciate the complexity of the Sichuan peppercorn. Years later, having had many 4-alarm Sichuan meals, I actually miss and crave the mala sensation (numbing spiciness) if I don't eat Sichuan for a week or more.
You can find dan dan mian at almost all Sichuan restaurants. Some people have it as an appetizer, others have it during the meal instead of rice. (I, for one, always get rice if I'm also ordering dishes bathed in a spicy sauce, like mapo tofu or mouth-watering chicken. Some friends of mine don't mind piling heat on top of heat, those brave fools.)
Dan dan noodles are also easy to make at home. Even the American home, now that the Sichuan peppercorn ban is lifted. Of course, this dish can always be toned down by adding less Sichuan pepper, but trust me...mala heat is addictive. Just make sure to have some water by your side.
Dan Dan Noodles
Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal, or 2 to 3 as a single dish
- 8 ounces ground pork or beef
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
- 1 teaspoon minced ginger
- 2 scallions, white and green parts chopped
- 2 tablespoons chopped Sichuan preserved vegetable (optional)
- 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, or salt to taste
- 8 ounces dried Chinese egg noodles
- 1 handful dry-roasted peanuts, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup chicken stock or water
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Chinese sesame paste or tahini
- 2 tablespoon Chinese black rice vinegar, or substitute good quality balsamic vinegar
- 3 tablespoons chili oil (adjust according to your tolerance of spiciness)
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper
- Bring a large pot of water to boil and cook the noodles according to package instructions. Drain the noodles, rinse under cold water, and drain again. Transfer the noodles to a serving dish.
- Prepare the sauce: In a medium bowl, whisk together the chicken stock, soy sauce, sesame paste, vinegar, chili oil, sesame oil, sugar, and Sichuan pepper. Pour the sauce over the noodles and toss so the sauce is evenly distributed. Set aside.
- Heat a large wok or skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat the base and sides. Add the garlic, ginger, white parts of the scallions, and optional Sichuan preserved vegetable and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the meat and stir-fry until the meat is a little crispy on the outside and no longer pink. Add rice wine to deglaze the pan. Season with salt to taste.
- Spoon the cooked meat mixture over the noodles, sprinkle the chopped scallions greens and chopped peanuts on top, and serve.