I spent the year after college working in decidedly unglamorous conditions in a small village in Sichuan, China, as a research assistant for a World Health Organization (WHO) sponsored project on the effect of parasite infections on learning in rural Chinese schoolchildren. The dirt roads, lack of toilets and running hot water wouldn’t appeal to me now, but at 20? I was honored and excited to be part of such an adventure. This was a few decades ago, when Westerners were spelling Sichuan “Szechuan” and pronouncing it something like “seshwon,” Sichuan peppercorns (hua jiao) were banned from being imported to the US due to a possibility of infecting US citrus crops, and the internet was not yet in existence. It was a great opportunity to live and work independently in China long before it became an economic powerhouse.
It was also the year when I learned to love spicy food. Throughout Sichuan province, bright red chiles are everywhere, and it took some time for my palate to adjust to those levels of fieriness. But it was the “ma” or numbing taste of Sichuan peppercorns that literally stunned me. The first time I experienced this sensation, with Sichuan peppercorns flavoring a simply prepared stirfry of lamb, I was afraid I would not regain sensation on my tongue. And there was no Google to look up my symptoms and reassure myself! But as with most things which scare me at first, I quickly embraced the unique flavor of Sichuan peppercorns and it’s now a (legal) staple in my pantry.
For occasional R and R, we’d spend a few days in Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu (which is now well known as a Chinese culinary mecca, thanks in no small part to Danny Bowien and Mission Chinese Food). While I had my share of banquets, I loved the street food, including Dan Dan Mian. I am so happy to have this simple to prepare recipe from Diana Kuan to prepare it in my kitchen. My verdict, as a former resident of Sichuan? These are the real deal.
Dan Dan Noodles
Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal, or 2 to 3 as a single dish
- 6 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
- 1/4 cup chicken stock or water
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1/2 tablespoon Chinese sesame paste or tahini
- 1 tablespoon Chinese black rice vinegar, or substitute good quality balsamic vinegar
- 3 tablespoons chili oil (adjust according to your tolerance of spiciness)
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon 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.
* * *
Disclosure: For this post, I am joining the Chinese New Year Virtual Pot Luck hosted by Diana Kuan, to celebrate the release of her first cookbook, The Chinese Takeout Cookbook. U.S. based participants in the Chinese New Year Potluck will receive a copy of the book.