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Seriously Asian: Dan Dan Noodles
As far as famous noodle dishes go, there are few that rival the complexity of flavor of Dan Dan noodles, a staple of Chinese cooking from Sichuan province. The sauce for these noodles possesses a combination of spices that never gets old. There's the heat of the dried chili peppers, the oiliness from the sesame paste and chili oil, the savoriness of Tianjin preserved vegetables, and best of all, the mouth-tingling feeling that could only come from Sichuan peppercorns.
Sichuan pepper (hua jiao) was used in Chinese cuisine well before black or white pepper was introduced by way of the spice route. Rather than being hot, Sichuan peppercorns give off a tingly, fizzy feeling on the tongue and take on an almost medicinal taste, which, when used sparingly, is incomparably delicious. The peppercorns, which grow on trees, turn dark pink in color and split open to reveal black, shiny seeds. The seeds are tasteless; it's the fragrant pink husks of the peppercorn that are valuable. (Like some other habit-forming items, Sichuan peppercorns are actually toxic when ingested in large quantities.)
Add meat to this spicy, savory, and tongue-numbing treasure, and you've got the classic combination for Dan Dan noodles. Though vendors in China carefully guard their individual recipes, the essential components of the dish vary only slightly. The meat in the noodles acts as a garnish: minced beef or pork is stir-fried in the pungent mix of pickles, spices, and oils just until it's crisp on the outside but still fairly tender in the center. The little nuggets of meat soak up a portion of the chili and sesame oil, essentially turning into bacon bits on crack. To enhance this effect, I like to use pork belly, though you can also use less fatty cuts to achieve a crispy-chewy texture.
Like the addictive house sauce at New York's Xian Famous Foods which can be repurposed to dress all kinds of vegetables and grains, the oily, meaty mixture of Dan Dan noodles shouldn't be limited to what is slurpable. Feel free to add vegetables to your plate: simply wilt bean sprouts or spinach and toss them with the noodles and sauce. Or, use spoonfuls of the sauce as a garnish for rice. Of course, the classic rendition— bouncy wheat noodles cooked al-dente, dressed liberally with the sauce—induces tingles on your tongue and down your spine. As your mouth suffers the pleasures of the Sichuan pepper, you sense that you are eating a time-worn, tried-and-true classic.