Chengdu Challenge #1: Dan Dan Noodles (Dan Dan Mian)

dan dan mian

Dan dan mian for a crowd

The Dan Dan Mian Challenge~~

Dan dan noodles was the first real Sichuan dish I ever had, when Grand Sichuan International, the first real Sichuan restaurant in Manhattan in decades, opened close to my home in Chelsea in the mid-’90s. I’ll never forget the moment when they sat it on the table. It looked like a plain bowl of boiled noodles with some ground pork on the top, but then I realized I needed to stir it up myself and began to turn the noodles and crispy pork  over in the pool of sauce sitting at the bottom of the bowl. I had never tasted anything like it—spicy, savory, good beyond belief. I had no idea what was in that sauce, but it was magnificent, in the simplest way, and had zero in common with the Chinese noodles I’d previously encountered, namely greasy, tasteless chow mein.

So it seems fitting to kick off the Chengdu Challenge with a dish that I know and love and have cooked dozens of times since I first started traveling to Chengdu in 2007. I tested the version in Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English  because I was excited by ingredients in it that other recipes for dan dan mian don’t call for (lard! sweet wheat paste!). The recipe for dan dan mian leads off the Xiao Chi, or Snacks, section of the book. It is, after all, Chengdu’s most famous xiao chi.

dan dan mian

Textbook dan dan mian served at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine’s restaurant in Chengdu

Even in Sichuan, no two dan dans are exactly the same.  I’ve eaten dozens of variations on this famous dish: about half are made the classic way and about half include some Chinese sesame paste in the sauce; some are topped with a shock of leafy green and some come without any greens; in some versions the noodles swim in a soupy sauce and in some there is just enough sauce to coat the noodles. What they always have in common is being a composed vs. a stir-fried noodle dish, requiring no cooking other than boiling the noodles and greens (in the same pot) and crisping the meat before they are layered into the bowl.

dan dan mian

Noodles made in Sichuan specifically for dan dan mian, bought in the U.S. They are very similar to Japanese ramen, which is a great sub.

dan dan mian

Indispensable ingredients, including tian mian sauce (back) and Yibin yacai

dandan-bokchoy-2

Greens add a burst of color

dan dan mian

The pork is browned and crisped in lard and sweet wheat paste

I can report in all honesty that this version of dan dan mian is the best I’ve ever made. Mainly because it has the perfect sauce-to-noodle ratio, which I have found elusive in the past. Due to the addition of stock to the sauce, the noodles are not too dry, as is a frequent outcome, but also not soupy, just perfectly moistened, with plenty of that super sauce. I made the recipe with a fetucini-size dried Chinese wheat noodle and also with a thin round one I found that said it was specifically for dan dan mian. Japanese ramen or any similar Asian stick noodle is a great substitute. Just don’t use egg noodles.   

Another brilliant touch of this recipe that you don’t see elsewhere is  frying the ground pork in lard (the freshly made, non-processed, better-for-you-than-butter kind) and tian mian, or sweet fermented wheat paste, which crisps it up beautifully and gives it a deep brown color and much richer taste. Like all true dan dan recipes, this one includes the earthy twang of yacai, Sichuan preserved mustard greens, as a defining taste. The recipe does not call for any greens, but we love baby bok choy so I add quite a bit as garnish. 

I’ve made this recipe now several times both with and without the sesame paste and will use it as the standard from now on. It’s perfection! How do I know? My daughter, skinny little picky eater Fong Chong, had a giant bowl of it for dinner, plus the leftovers for lunch and an after-school snack the next day. 

 

I have lots more to say about dan dan mian and my family:

Dan Dan Noodles: A Judgement on My Motherhood
dan dan mian

A single serving of dan dan mian, mixed up and ready to be devoured

Recipe revised November 2016

Chengdu Challenge #1: Dan Dan Noodles (Dan Dan Mian)
Author: 
 
Adapted from Sichuan (China) Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, published in China in 2010 by the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and the Sichuan Gourmet Association.
Ingredients
  • 2 tablespoons lard (or oil)
  • ⅓ pound finely ground pork
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
  • 2 teaspoons tian mian jiang (sweet wheat or sweet bean paste)
  • pinch salt
  • 4 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons Zhenjiang black rice vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons chili oil with flakes
  • 3 tablespoons yacai
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped scallion
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ⅓ cup chicken stock
  • 4 baby bok choy, cleaned and leaves separated
  • 12 ounces thin or medium dried Chinese wheat noodles
Instructions
  1. Heat a dry wok until quite hot, reduce heat to medium and add lard (or oil). When lard is hot, add the ground pork and stir-fry until the pork loses its pinkness. Add the Shaoxing cooking wine, sweet wheat paste and salt and continue to stir-fry until the pork is lightly crisp and starts to "pop." Drain the pork from the fat and keep in reserve.
  2. Mix the light soy sauce, Zhenjiang vinegar, chili oil with flakes, yacai, scallions, sesame paste and sugar in a serving bowl. Add the chicken stock and mix well.
  3. Bring water to a boil in a large pot, add bok choy and cook about 2 minutes, or until done. Remove boy choy and chop into bite-size pieces. Add noodles to same pot of boiling water and cook just until done. Drain noodles and stir in a bit of oil to keep them from sticking together.
  4. Layer the noodles into the bowl on top of the sauce. If you're not sure of your quantity of noodles, add only enough to maintain a generous sauce-to-noodle ratio. Top the noodles with the pork and garnish with the bok choy leaves. Mix it up at table before serving.
Notes
To serve as they do in Sichuan, portion noodles between small single-serving bowls.

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11 Responses

  1. Charlie says:

    Thanks for posting this! I made the recipe and definitely agree that these are some of the best Dan Dan noodles out there. For me it’s a tie between this and the “Xie Laoban” recipe in the Fuchsia Dunlop book, which despite a similar ingredients list tastes a good bit different.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Charlie! I agree that Sichuan recipes with very similar ingredients can vary significantly in taste. That’s what makes it interesting! So happy to hear this one worked for you.

  2. Rob says:

    This post is a trip down memory lane. I had been served mediocre versions of this dish many times before, but for me too, the first time I realized that Dan Dan Noodles — and Sichuan cooking in general — was something special, was also at Grand Sichuan International in Chelsea, probably some time in the late 90s. This was almost certainly the most exciting restaurant in New York at the time, and its sad that its now long gone — and had lost its edge when its founder sold it and moved on. Fortunately, there are now several Sichuan restaurants in New York that are quite good — although I still miss the real Grand Sichuan a lot.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Rob,
      That’s so cool. Sounds like we were frequenting Grand Sichuan at the same time. I knew at the time it was special, but I really didn’t understand how lucky I was to have them deliver dan dan mian, dry-fried green beans and even tea-smoked duck to my front door all the time. I miss it too, but agree that the next generation of Sichuan restaurants in Midtown is doing a great job carrying the torch. (No pun intended.)

  3. Manda Menzies says:

    Hi Taylor

    I am mom batches of Chinese students for anywhere from a year to two at a time… and the journey has been interesting!!! Challenging…heartbreaking…thank goodness I can read about some of your experiences and learn from your lessons!

    M

  4. sub says:

    Hi Taylor,

    Just want to say a big thank you to help me improve my Dan Dan Mian !

    Frying the ground pork in lard with tian mian jiang gives a crispier texture :p

    But I don’t think you need chicken stock, the noodles need to stay very dry without too much sauce, they also add white tian mian jiang in the sauce, look at these pictures from the Sichuan culinary Institute: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kattebelletje/4469813158/in/photostream/

    here’s my noodles
    http://img15.hostingpics.net/pics/947194dandan1.jpg
    http://img15.hostingpics.net/pics/367943dandan2.jpg
    http://img15.hostingpics.net/pics/948260dandan3.jpg

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Sub,

      Thanks for your photos! I agree that dan dan shouldn’t be too wet, but I also don’t like it dry and sticky. I think this is very subjective! However, I wonder which recipe of mine you used. I recently discovered, much to my horror, that I had specified the wrong amount of noodles for the recipe. I have corrected the recipe and increased the amount of noodles, and it’s not nearly as soupy.

      Not sure where you’re seeing white tian mian jiang. Is there such a thing? To me it looks like the blob of white in the sauce in that photo is probably a dollop of lard.

      Your homemade noodles look great.

  5. michael says:

    I’m so happy I stumbled onto this wonderful blog. I have only recently fallen in love with sichuan cuisine (thanks, in part, to Kenji’s posts on serious eats for real kung pao chicken and mapo tofu–heaven). As so, I decided to try your version of Dan Dan last night. It was magic at first bite. How is this cuisine so incredible yet so poorly represented in the U.S. (especially the midwest where i live)? Thank you for your work!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      You are welcome! Thanks so much for your feedback. Authentic Sichuan food continues to make inroads into the interior U.S., so hopefully it will reach both you and me soon!

  6. Monica says:

    Hello,
    How many servings is it for this recipe? I am trying to see if it will be enough for my guests to try this wonderful dish 🙂
    Thanks!
    M

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Monica,

      I’m sure you’re not the only one wondering about serving size. My mother-in-law has asked me that too. It really depends on how many other dishes you are serving. But this particular recipe is a lot of noodles, so I think it would serve four easily as the only dish, more if you have another dish. Thanks for asking!

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