Chengdu Noodles: Above and Beyond Dan Dan Mian
The Straight-up, Lo-down on the Infinite Varieties~~
The Mala Project’s first-ever guest post is by Jordan Porter, owner and chief experience officer at Chengdu Food Tours. A Canadian who has lived in Chengdu since 2010, he began his culinary tour company in 2015 and has since led tours of the streets of Chengdu and the countryside of Sichuan for travelers like you and me and for food VIPs (many of whose articles you probably read, after Jordan schooled them in Sichuan cuisine). As many of you know, I also began my obsession with Sichuan food by founding a culinary tour company with Sichuan-native partners way back in 2008. While the experience changed my life in a million positive ways—including leading me to my daughter in 2011—I have decided to close Lotus Culinary Travel. Now that I am a full-time mom with a day job, a blog, and a new Sichuan Specialty Food Shop, I can’t spend as much time as I need to in Chengdu managing a tour business. Fortunately, there is now someone on the ground offering the kind of culinary tours I can wholeheartedly recommend. Jordan will also work occasionally with my longtime colleague/guide Tom He, who made Lotus tours so special.
Jordan will also become a contributor to The Mala Project, keeping us up to date on the ever-evolving and exciting food scene in Sichuan. First up is his “straight-up, lo-down on Chengdu noodles.” All photos are his as well. I’ve previously published a recipe for pork-rib noodles in clear Sichuan broth. Expect a recipe for zajiang mian from me within the week!
By Jordan Porter~~ Dan Dan noodles are undoubtedly one of the most famous foods of Sichuan and are found in almost every Sichuan restaurant outside of China. But does anybody in Sichuan actually eat them anymore? You’ll probably be surprised to learn that the answer is “not really.”
Dan dan mian has a conveniently romantic origin story of noodles and sauces carried over a vendor’s shoulder on a bamboo pole and served up in small bowls right in the street. These are tales from the days when street food was the norm. But street food doesn’t exist like that anymore in Chengdu (bylaws see to that), and dan dan seems to be mostly a thing of yesterday. Nowadays people get their noodles in shops, which serve hearty helpings of spicy noodles in bowls large enough for a meal. According to Mr. Liu, a taxi driver acquaintance of mine, “Dan dan noodle shops were never that many in number. It wasn’t a shop thing, and not that many people really eat it anyway.”
Shops that serve up a good bowl of dan dan noodles in Chengdu are hard to find, that is aside from the famous snack shops like Long Chao Shou that cater primarily to domestic tourists, or vendors that line the commercialized old streets like Wide and Narrow Alleys. They serve dan dan in small bowls of only 50 grams, to evoke the idea of tradition. But these “characteristic foods” seem to be more a vessel for conveying how a society has decided its food should be represented rather than what’s actually for lunch.
So what actually is for lunch in Chengdu?
Chengdu noodle variations can seem infinite, but in their simplest forms there are really two types: soup noodles and dry noodles.
Noodles, by which I mean wheat noodles—the Chinese word mian (面) implies that they are made from wheat—are made fresh and cooked fresh, so they cook extremely quickly and are often soft when compared to pasta in the West, but that’s how they’re supposed to be. At a noodle shop, the empty bowls are typically filled with a series of spices/sauces that create most of the flavors of the dish. This often includes, but is not limited to soy sauce, vinegar, salt, garlic, Sichuan peppercorn and, of course, chili oil. Some greens or cabbage leaves are often added in as well, and the noodles are placed on top once they are cooked. Pre-prepared meat such as fried pork or red-braised beef is then added on top with garnishes such as chopped green onions or cilantro.
That’s the basics, but the variations are innumerable, with meat preparations ranging from classics like ribs and beef to chicken gizzards, rabbit, or intestines. Vegetables can range from simple cabbage to cowpeas, spinach, pickled long beans or smoked bamboo, and the noodles themselves can vary in shape, size and texture.
Dry noodles are usually topped with a fried meat mince called a saozi. Soup noodles are composed the same way (sauce, noodles, topping), but with the addition of a ladle or two of broth or noodle water. Soup noodles are generally topped with ribs or stewed beef. With soup noodles you have the additional choice of the non-spicy clear broth (清汤) or the numbing and spicy red soup (红汤). The clear soup can be drunk, but the red soup is there mostly for flavor, temperature and feel and isn’t usually consumed—though that’s more a guideline than a rule.
Because of the layering and the fact that most of the flavors are on the bottom, the mix, or the “ban” (拌), is one of the most important elements of eating your noodles. Noodle dishes are based on a balance of flavors, and to do justice to this balance—and the recipe—you need to get a good mix.
In Sichuan the most common noodles are beef or rib noodles in red soup（排骨面）and zajiang noodles (杂酱面). Not to be confused with northern China’s famous zhajiang mian, zajiang mian are dry noodles with chili oil and fried minced pork.
But zajiang mian sounds a lot like dan dan mian, you might be thinking. And you’d be right. In reality, there’s not that much difference between the two. Most notably, dan dan noodles are made with preserved mustard greens known as yacai (芽菜) and often tian mian jiang (甜面酱), a sweet fermented wheat paste. (The dish is not likely to include sesame paste, which was largely an American adaptation.) Zajiang noodles have a looser definition than dan dan and may include pickled long beans, other greens and variations in the meat and sauce. But it could almost be argued that dan dan noodles are a type of zajiang noodles (though I know a few people who’d get irate at that notion).
The main difference is that zajiang noodles are hearty, filling, full-flavored and, most notably, come in a large serving. Either way, for the consumer there’s not a huge difference, and you shouldn’t be that concerned with what type of noodle you’re getting anyway. The best noodles are the noodles in front of you. Chengdu alone has more than 13,000 noodle shops listed on DianPing (sort of the Chinese equivalent of Yelp). So if you find yourself in Chengdu, look for a busy place, sit down and order what the guy next to you is having, then mix, dig in and enjoy.
In China, noodles are what you want when you want to get a peek into a city’s food culture—the quickest, simplest taste of a city’s flavors and fortunes in one hot steaming bowl. Noodles aren’t made for tourists, they are made to feed the masses. They are the solo lunch of the working class; the on-the-run snack of the taxi driver; the vehicle of the family’s secret recipe. Noodles are the breakfast and lunch of millions every day—in short, they are the food of the people.
Want to eat your way through Sichuan? Contact Jordan at Chengdu Food Tours.