Note: For the 32 days between February 1st and March 4th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!
Another day in Vegan Month, another recipe in my quest to take the cute and cuddly animals out of all of my favorite foods in a no-BS, as-delicious-as-the-real-thing, good-enough-for-anyone kind of way. I'm particularly happy with this one, which makes sense, as its a logical extension of that Vegan Mapo Tofu recipe I made a couple weeks back. I'm talking about the other great pillar of cheap-and-easy Sichuan cuisine: Dan Dan Noodles.
The prototypical street food, Dan Dan noodles are an ultra-simple dish of cold or warm noodles placed in a bowl with a ladleful of highly seasoned sauce poured on top. Flavored with minced pork, preserved pickled mustard, black vinegar, fermented broad beans, garlic, and plenty of chili oil, the dish is eaten by swirling the slick noodles through the oily sauce, picking up bits of meat and pickles as they go.
There are all kinds of variations on the dish that you'll find in Chinese restaurants in the U.S. Some go the ultra-authentic, hardcore traditional route, while others remove some or even all of the heat from the dish, instead replacing it with a creamy sesame (or even peanut butter!) based sauce. To me, picking one version of Dan Dan noodles as the best is kinda like choosing my favorite Beatles album: It's a constantly shifting debate, even with myself. Best plan is to just pick a path and run with it. This time I'm going for the more traditional approach. Obviously, modifying it for my vegan needs is going to alter that approach in practice (though not in spirit).
Making the sauce for dan dan noodles is exceedingly simple once you've got the basic ingredients in your pantry. It's just a matter of mixing them in the right proportions. Soy sauce forms the base, while Chinkiang black vinegar lends its characteristic acidity—it has a sweet, almost balsamic vinegar-esque aroma to it, though not quite as syrupy as that. Fermented broad bean chili paste comes in many forms throughout China, but after spending years shopping around, I found my new favorite brand, and luckily, It's available on Amazon, delivered right to your door. Chili oil is a given, and while it's best (and remarkably easy!) to make at home, there are a number of good options available at any decent Chinese market. Look for the kind which has actual chili, garlic, and ginger debris in the bottom of the jar, not the completely clear kind you see in easy-pour bottles. That debris is where the magic is at.
While the most traditional versions don't include a sesame product, I've recently taken to adding a touch of tahini to my sauce, after having tasted it in Chichi's Vermicelli with Chili Oil recipe. Not enough to bring a distinct sesame flavor to the dish, but just enough to lightly bind the sauce and add a touch of creaminess to help it cling to the noodles a little bit better.
Speaking of that clinginess, I ran into my first issue with the vegan version of the dish. Traditionally, the sauce base gets mixed with some rich chicken stock, which adds some natural gelatin and body to the mix. Plain old water or vegetable stock are lacking in that body, making the sauce a little too thin. It runs off the noodles instead of sticking to them. The tahini helps a bit, but my base needed a little extra help.
The answer came when I was reading through Fucshia Dunlop's books, in which she mentions that in Northern China, the starchy water leftover from boiling noodles is often drank like a silky soup or added to sauces to thicken them. It's exactly the same way an Italian cook will save some pasta water to add to their sauce—the extra dissolved starch thickens the sauce, binding it and helping it cling better to the noodles.
Cooking fresh Chinese wheat noodles in a big pot of water doesn't produce a high enough concentration of starch to be effective, but cooking it in far less water than is recommended (I cook 8 ounces of fresh noodles in about a quart of salted water) yields you a pot full of silky, semi-opaque liquid that combines marvelously with the sauce base.
The pork is the odd man out in the traditional recipe. Fortunately, much like with the beef in Sichuan Mapo Tofu, the pork is not the star player of the dish. Its role is mainly textural, adding a bit of meaty, bouncy chew that clings to the slippery noodles as you slurp them up. Having already addressed an identical issue when finding a suitable replacement for ground beef in my Vegan Mapo Tofu recipe, I knew what I had to do here: I chopped up a bunch of mushrooms in a food processor into little bits, then employed the Chinese technique of dry-frying—cooking them slowly in oil—until they were mostly dehydrated, lightly shriveled, and deeply browned. The resulting little nuggets have great texture and a flavor that is not really pork-like, but savory and rich in its own unique way.
The remaining aromatics are simple. A few tablespoons of chopped preserved Sichuan mustard root, some garlic, and a splash of Shaoxing wine to deglaze the skillet once its all been stir-fried together.
Add it to the sauce base and pasta water, pour it over the noodles, garnish with a few fresh greens like cilantro and sliced scallions, and we're ready to eat.
If you were so inclined, you could do as the street vendors of Chengdu did: make the aromatics and sauce base in larger batches, store them together in a sealed container in the fridge, and have them ready to go at moments notice whenever you want a quick snack. All you have to do is cook the noodles, add some starchy cooking liquid to the sauce base, pour it on top, and you're good to go. Due to its high oil, salt, and acid content, the pre-made and mixed sauce should stay good in a sealed container in the fridge for several weeks at least.
Gentlemen, start your slurping.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.