Introducing Chengdu Zajiang Noodles (Zajiang Mian)
Just Don’t Call It Zhajiang Mian~~
As we learned in the recent guest post from Chengdu Food Tours’s Jordan Porter, zajiang mian is one of Chengdu’s most popular noodles, a bigger, heartier cousin of dan dan noodles and more-loved than its little cousin in modern Chengdu. I promised at the time to work on the recipe, and here are the results.
But first, I want to share my closer-to-home inspiration: the zajiang mian at Mian, a real-deal Sichuan/Chongqing noodle shop in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley. Opened by Tony Xu, chef-owner of the incomparable Chengdu Taste, it has likewise turned the heads of food critics, with Jonathan Gold naming its zajiang noodles one of Los Angeles’s 10 best dishes of 2016. (As an aside, City of Gold, the documentary about Gold that includes Chengdu Taste is on Amazon Video now. I devoured it like I do the food the uber-critic recommends.)
The only problem is that in his writing Gold repeatedly calls zajiang mian “zhajiang” mian, which is a famous noodle dish native to Beijing. There’s understandable confusion about whether zajiang mian is the Sichuan version of zhajiang mian, but people who know tell me it is not. Zhajiang means “fried sauce,” as a reader of this blog once pointed out to me, while zajiang means “mixed sauce.” Plus, the two dishes are made and taste very different. No one had to point that out to me.
In 2010 I took a taxi to the far ‘burbs of Beijing to eat in the capital’s most famous zhajiang noodle house. When I entered, two women were standing up front for all to see, stirring large pans of the pork sauce for the noodles, frying small, fatty pork chunks in a thick, Beijing-style soybean sauce and a lot of oil. The pork sauce was then served in a small bowl alongside a large bowl of noodles topped with raw and almost-raw vegetables (bean sprouts, cabbage, cucumber, radish, fresh soybean, scallions), and you mixed the sauce in yourself.
Chengdu zajiang mian, on the other hand, is identified by the topping of minced pork, seasoned more lightly than zhajiang and not in a bean sauce. It sits atop noodles, perhaps with other toppings such as pickled long beans, a fried egg, boiled greens, etc., and a Sichuan sauce of chili oil, soy sauce and other goodies is in the bottom of the bowl. The art of eating this dish, as Jordan explained, is in the “ban,” or mix, the art of distributing the sauce throughout the other ingredients.
If one pays close attention to the menu and placemat when eating at Mian, you can learn all of this.
Zajiang mian has a relatively loose definition and varies pretty widely with the maker; sometimes the pork is sauce-y and sometimes it is dry crumbles, and the sauce and other toppings also vary. So after I had come up with recipes that my family liked for the pork topping and sauce—in consultation with Jordan—I Googled to see what others had come up with (I try to always do this in this order). I found mainly recipes for zhajiang mian, but what thrilled me (how did I miss this?) was Mian’s own recipe for zajiang noodles, as told to Lucky Peach’s Peter Meehan. (When I had an interview dinner at Chengdu Taste with Chef Xu and his biz partner, Sean Xie, I wasn’t brave enough to ask for a recipe.)
Now, before you leave here and go directly to Lucky Peach, I will say that my recipe was somewhat similar to theirs, and I tested them both. And I’m inclined to think that Mian itself varies its zajiang pork, as the one served to me was much saucier than the one in its menu photo. I was going for a pretty wet sauce—a Sichuan bolognese—to distinguish it further from the crisp crumbles of dan dan mian. I also added more toppings than the basic recipe in Lucky Peach. And I do believe that the sauce called for in each bowl in that recipe would definitely undersauce that much noodles. Mian is very generous with the sauce. But by all means, try my recipe and theirs. You cannot go wrong, as long as you are using real Sichuan ingredients. (Did I mention that we have a Sichuan Specialty Food Shop for that?)
Fong Chong and Craig had their noodles and meat sauce with boiled baby bok choy and a fried egg (see above), mimicking the version we had at Mian. I had mine with some naturally fermented Sichuan pickled green beans (called jiang dou zajiang mian) I had in the fridge—pickled green beans and fried pork mince are a common pairing in Sichuan. (I am not including the recipe for the pickled green beans here, but it will be appearing on this blog soon as part of a deep dive into paocai, or Sichuan pickles.)
A few pointers:
- The sauce in the bottom of the bowl includes lard. Don’t leave it out. I figured out long ago that it’s one of the secret ingredients of a great Sichuan noodle sauce. Buy some good pork lard from a butcher and you’ll be happy you have it for many Sichuan dishes.
- Add a pinch of MSG to the sauce if you want it as served in Sichuan.
- Take into consideration how hot your chili oil is and how fresh and potent your Sichuan pepper powder and adjust accordingly.
- Retain some noodle water, in case your sauce/noodle ratio goes wrong and you need some more sauce. Just pour a little in to wet your noodles.
The final pointer I’d like to leave you with is that you can vary the following recipe for the pork topping and the bottom-of-the-bowl sauce in any way that pleases you. Make Chengdu zajiang your own, just as the Sichuanese do. Just don’t call it zhajiang mian.
- 1 pound ground pork
- 3 pickled medium-hot red chillies (or 3 tablespoons Sambal Oelek or similar pickled chili sauce)
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1½ cups water
- 2 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Chinese dark soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sweet wheat/soybean sauce (tian mian jiang)
- 1 teaspoon melted lard
- 2 tablespoons chili oil with flakes (preferably homemade and medium-hot)
- 2 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon Zhenjiang black vinegar
- 1 teaspoon runny Chinese sesame paste
- ¼ teaspoon roasted, ground Sichuan pepper (or more, depending on potency of peppercorns)
- 2 teaspoons thinly sliced green onions: 1 teaspoon for sauce and 1 teaspoon for garnish
- ½ cup noodle water, held in reserve
- 2 baby bok choy per serving
- 1 hard-fried egg per serving
- First make the pork topping. Heat wok over a high flame until wisps of heat start to rise, add 2 tablespoons canola oil and heat until hot. Add pork, vigorously breaking it up with your spatula into the smallest crumbles possible. Cook pork until starting to brown and most of its juices have been cooked off. Push pork to the sides of the wok to make a well in the center and add the pickled chilies and garlic. Let cook briefly and then stir-fry with the pork. Add the water, light and dark soy sauces and sweet wheat paste and bring to a low boil. Let simmer over low heat, stirring frequently, for about 15 minutes. Add more water if necessary to maintain a wet sauce.
- While the pork is cooking, prepare a bowl for each individual serving. Put lard into each bowl and melt in the microwave. Add chili oil with flakes, soy sauce, broth, Zhenjiang vinegar, runny sesame paste, Sichuan pepper powder and green onions to each bowl and mix well.
- Meanwhile, put a large pot of water on to boil. Add noodles and cook, then add small baby bok choy to noodles about 3 minutes before noodles are done and boil together. Drain noodles and bok choy, reserving some of the noodle water. (If noodles get dry and sticky while you are completing other steps, run hot water over them briefly.)
- If using eggs, fry them in oil until completely cooked on each side, one per serving.
- Place a mound of cooked noodles on top of the sauce in each bowl. Top with desired amount of pork, baby bok choy and fried egg. Garnish with green onions. Each diner should thoroughly mix the noodles with the sauce on the bottom and the pork topping before digging in. (If you misjudge the noodle to sauce ratio, add a bit of reserved noodle water to create additional sauce.)