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The first time I tasted these noodles in China, it was in Beijing and from one of those little hole-in-the-wall shops. Not even a shop, per se—just a little alcove in an alleyway that on rainy days was covered over with a tarp. On sunny days, the Sichuanese owners would pull out some extra stools for seating.
The noodles were composed in this way: thin, al dente noodles, dressed in soy sauce and sesame oil and tossed with an assortment of toasted nutty things: sesame seeds, walnuts, and peanuts. Also, there were pickled mustard greens, briny and just a little sweet, and leafy, fresh greens scattered throughout too. As a finishing touch, a drizzle of chili oil that had been heated in the wok, then poured over the noodles at the last moment.
The walnuts and peanuts were very finely chopped, so that they coated the strands of noodles the way grains of sand stick to your thighs at the beach. Almost every strand of noodle, already slick and fragrant with chili oil, carried with it a light sprinkling of these nuts. After I tasted these noodles I became convinced that all noodle dishes would be bettered with the addition of finely chopped nuts. Eight years later, I see no reason to amend my beliefs about the matter.
Sichuanese "ya cai" pickles—leaves of mustard greens that have been sun-dried, rubbed with salt, then mixed with various aromatics and sealed in jars to mature for months—are the ones traditionally used for the dish, but I've never been a stickler for authenticity at the cost of gustatory pleasure. Over the years, I've made these noodles with all manner of pickled mustard greens, which you can't go to a Chinese grocery store without seeing. This is a good thing, because the traditional "ya cai" is much harder to find, and if you're the kind of noodle eater who would let a little thing like that get in the way of enjoying otherwise fairly authentic yibin noodles, then I don't know. I just don't know.
This is probably one of my favorite noodles dishes of all time, especially in the meatless category. I made these noodles a few weekends ago for friends. As is traditional in the serving of these noodles, I let my guests mix in their own helpings of nuts and pickles, as well as slivers of green scallions. I put each garnish in a little dish. For the first few minutes there was a lot of passing around of little bowls and plates, lots of pleases and thank yous as we handed things to each other.
Then we began to eat. Silence, utter silence, at the table. One friend pronounced Sichuanese food as being very close to God. Another simply ate with long, reverent slurps. It was a very good dinner. If I closed my eyes, I could almost remember the way Beijing smells after it rains, the freshness of the air, the salty dampness of wood, and the heady whiffs of chili oil heating in the wok, somehow staving off and whetting hunger all at once.
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