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.

Beijing zhajiang noodle ladies

Making sauce for the famous zhajiang mian at Fortune Long Beijing Bean Sauce Noodles

Beijing zhajiang noodles and sauce

A small bowl of the pork-and-bean sauce is served with the noodles and vegetables

Beijing zhajiang noodles

Beijing zhajiang noodles after the mix

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.

Mian's Chengdu zajiang menu

They’re careful to distinguish Chengdu zajiang from Beijing zhajiang

Mian's Chengdu zajiang noodle placemat

Not sure if you can read the noodle-eating instructions, but Step 1 is “Take a photo for your noodle!”, step 2 is “Hold your chopsticks all the way to the bottom,” and step 3 is “Stir evenly.”

Mian's Chengdu zajiang noddles for Instagram

See Step 1. (She would have done it anyway. I taught her well.)

Mian's Chengdu zajiang mian post-mix

See Steps 2 and 3 (per placemat).  This is after I mixed the sauce on the bottom and the pork topping into the noodles. I chose to leave the other toppings unmixed. I added the bawan beans from Chongqing to my zajiang mian as an extra.

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?)

Chengdu zajiang mian pork

A ‘wet’ pork topping makes for a juicier bowl of noodles

Fong Chong and Craig had their noodles and meat sauce with boiled baby bok choy and a fried egg, 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.)

Sichuan zajiang mian

Sichuan zajiang mian with fried egg and bok choy

Chengdu zajiang mian with green beans

Jiang dou zajiang mian, a version topped with naturally fermented green bean pickles

A few pointers:

  1. 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.
  2. Add a pinch of MSG to the sauce if you want it as served in Sichuan.
  3. Take into consideration how hot your chili oil is and how fresh and potent your Sichuan pepper powder and adjust accordingly.
  4. 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.

Chengdu Zajiang Noodles (Zajiang Mian)
Author: 
 
Ingredients
Pork topping for 4-6 servings
  • 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)
Sauce ingredients PER BOWL/SERVING
  • 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
4 ounces dried, or 6 ounces fresh, thin or medium-wide wheat noodles per serving
  • ½ cup noodle water, held in reserve
Additional, optional toppings
  • 2 baby bok choy per serving
  • 1 hard-fried egg per serving
Instructions
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. If using eggs, fry them in oil until completely cooked on each side, one per serving.
  5. 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.)

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12 Responses

  1. Most lard found in the supermarket is hydrogenated and not very good quality but fortunately, it’s very easy to make lard at home. Just save any trimmings of fat you get when cooking pork, especially fatty pork shoulder and store it in the freezer.

    When you’ve saved up enough, let it thaw until it’s semi-frozen, cut into rough smallish chunks and put it in a baking dish with 1 cup of water and throw it in a 250F oven overnight. If you want a multi-purpose lard for baking and cooking, stop there. If you’re only using it for cooking, crank the oven up to 350F and continue cooking until the cracklings are at your desired shade of golden brown. Strain into a mason jar or other airtight container and store in the fridge, using a spoon to scoop out a tablespoon at a time for cooking.

    One thing that’s also become my habit is that, whatever meat I’m cooking, I’ll trim off some of the pieces of fat and allow that to render as the first step of cooking. I’ll then use that fat to sear my meat or sautee my veggies instead of the 1 tbsp of vegetable oil usually called for in recipes. It makes a world of difference.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      I agree with you about store-bought lard, so I always get mine housemade by a good butcher. But thank you so much for this recipe for homemade lard. It sounds totally easy and doable.

      Another awesome tip from Xianhang!

  2. Jo says:

    Dear Taylor,
    thank you so much for your in-depth insights and this recepy, as this one is again inspiring for me to dig even deeper into the secrets of creating another perfect sichuan noodle dish! Being addicted to Chinese food, and having been to Chengdu recently, I perfectly understand what you are talking about 😉

    Your blog is fantastic, please keep up this excellent work!

    Greetings from Berlin / Germany, where we are happy to be able to obtain almost all of the genuine ingredients from our local Asian shop.

    Jo

  3. joan k. says:

    This looks amazing– may have to try it this weekend! Am eagerly awaiting your pickled bean recipe!

  4. Spike says:

    Many of the Asian grocery stores I frequent here in Atlanta carry pork lard in the butcher section. You just have to ask for it. I suspect the same would be true for a good Mexican or central American grocery as well.

  5. Helen says:

    Hi Taylor! This recipe was delicious!! Thanks for sharing. I’ve had these noodles all over and this recipe was even better than the ones served in restaurants. Two tweaks in my part: I added some magic sarap msg to my sauce and I used the Yidu brand noodles which are delicious and come in many different sizes. Thanks again for sharing!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks, Helen! You made my week! Really happy to hear the recipe worked for a knowledgeable zajiang eater. MSG is, of course, authentic. And I’ll keep an eye out for the Yidu noodles.

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