Traditional Chinese dishes often become unrecognizable once they meet the American addiction to sugar salt and fat. Dan Dan Mian is a good example. Originating in China’s western Sichuan Province, the original version consisted of a spicy oil made with chilies and Sichuan pepper, dressing noodles tossed with preserved mustard stems, minced pork , Chinese black vinegar and scallions. The over-all effect was classic “ma-la”- numbing from the Sichuan pepper, and spicy and hot from the chilies
The name is a reference to the Chinese bamboo pole that is carried over the shoulders, with two baskets attached at either end. Street vendors used to sell these noodles, and the locals eventually began to refer to them as “Dan Dan Mian” or “Bamboo Pole Noodles”.
More often than not, in this country, the spiciness is greatly downplayed, the Sichuan pepper is left out altogether, and the noodles are tossed in a sweetish combination of peanut butter and sesame paste.
One of the best renditions to be found in Boston is at The New Shanghai in Chinatown, where the noodles are served at their numbingly-fiery best.
If you prefer to make them yourself, here is a simple recipe:
DAN DAN NOODLES: (Serves Two)
One Tablespoon Chinese peanut oil
½ cup Zha Cai (Chinese preserved mustard stem) rinsed, sliced and julienned
3 slices of peeled ginger, julienned
6 scallions, minced
4 Tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
2 teaspoons Chinese Chinkiang black vinegar
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns toasted in a dry skillet until fragrant and ground or finely crushed.
3 Tablespoons Chinese chili oil
¼ lb. ground pork
1 teaspoon Shaoxing Wine or dry sherry
8 oz fresh Chinese wheat noodles
Place a wok over high heat. Add the peanut oil and swirl to coat. Add the Zha Cai, ginger and scallions, and stir-fry until fragrant. Remove to a bowl and add half of the soy sauce, the vinegar the chili oil and the ground Sichuan pepper. Reheat the wok, add the ground pork and cook, breaking up with a spatula, until the meat begins to separate. Add the Shaoxing wine or sherry, and the remaining two tablespoons of soy sauce. When the pork is cooked through, remove and set aside in a separate bowl.
Cook the noodles in salted boiling water until just done, drain and add to the bowl with the Zha Cai mixture. Top with the pork, and stir to mix. Divide the noodles into two serving bowls and serve immediately.