I’ve a head teeming with ideas for blog posts and recipes I want to try but it’s been a hectic week since I came back from Sicily and I haven’t yet had time to cook anything new. A Twitter conversation with Elaine (@LainerC) on how and in what combination with other ingredients to use Sichuan pepper reminded me of Fuchsia Dunlop’s version of Xie Laoban’s dan dan noodles which I tried for the first time just before I went on holidays and captured all the flavours of Sichuan in one simple dish. This dish is also a good example of ma la – the balance of numbing, cooling ma with spicy la, and I’m grateful to Ronan Farrell (@ronan_farrell) for reminding me of that lovely Chinese expression.
I love the Chinese characters for noodles 面条- mian tiao where the first character is the symbol for “face” and the second for “twigs”. I always remember it by thinking of a man piling “twigs” of noodles up to his face.
I also love Fuchsia’ story, told in detail in Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, of the inscrutable and often cranky Xie Laoban who made this legendary version of dan dan noodles in a tiny restaurant in Chengdu and her painstaking efforts to recreate the recipe by getting little nuggets of information from him over time and by closely examining the dish.
Increasingly for me Chinese food is not just flavour, it’s story and history woven into a tapestry on a plate. Noodles are a very significant part of the Chinese diet and, while I sometimes craved something more like a Western breakfast while I was there, Shan was constantly in search of noodles, eating little and often as the Chinese do. I can never eat them now without thinking of her Mum explaining the importance of serving them when welcoming family home, because of their symbolism in binding people together.
The dish below is unapologetically spicy, one for the spice girls – or the la men zi as they are known in China – and is the version Fuchsia included in her seminal cook book on Sichuan cuisine Sichuan Cookery. Get this right and you know exactly what balance of flavours to look for in a Sichuan dish.
The joy of this recipe is that it can be prepared in minutes from store cupboard ingredients and a 100g of minced beef. I got some extra lean minced beef today and froze it in 100 gm portions as an emergency supply so that I can avoid the need for mid-week takeaways. It has already become one of our favourites.
Niu Rou Dan Dan Mian*
300 g dried Chinese noodles
- 1 tbs groundnut oil
- 3 Sichuanese dried chillies, snipped in half, seeds discarded
- 1/2 tsp whole Sichuan pepper
- 25 g Sichuanese ya cai or Tianjin preserved vegetable
- 100g minced beef
- 2 tsps light soy sauce
- Salt to taste
- 1/2 – 1 tsp ground, roasted Sichuan pepper
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 4 tsps sesame paste
- 1 tbs light soy sauce
- 1 tbs dark soy sauce
- 2 tbs chilli oil with chilli sediment
Preparing this dish is as easy and speedy as it gets.
- Dry roast some Sichuan pepper in a hot wok until the aromas are released and grind in a pestle and mortar. Be careful not to burn it. Any you have left over will keep in an airtight container.
- Line up your other ingredients.
- Put the sauce ingredients into a serving bowl large enough to take the cooked noodles and set aside.
- Heat 1 tbs groundnut oil in a wok over moderate heat. When hot but not yet smoking, add the chillies and Sichuan pepper and stir-fry briefly until the oil is spicy and fragrant, taking care not to burn the spices.
- Add the yai cai or preserved vegetable and continue to stir fry until hot and fragrant.
- Add the minced beef and a good splash of light soy sauce and stir fry until the meat is broken up, brown and a little crispy but not too dry. Season with salt to taste.
- When the meat is cooked remove from the wok and set aside.
Cook noodles according to packet instructions. Drain them and add to the sauce in the serving bowl. Sprinkle with the meat mixture and serve immediately.
When the bowl is on the table, give the noodles a good stir with chopsticks until the sauce and meat are evenly distributed.
This quantity of noodles will serve up to four people as a quick and easy lunch or supper or as a starter for a bigger meal.
Tips and substitutes:
- Shan often uses spaghetti as a substitute for Chinese noodles as she finds packet noodles in Beijing get soggy easily and are nothing like as good as her home made ones. I’ve found decent dried wheat flour and water noodles in Asian supermarkets but when I made this dish for the second time today, I used Blue Dragon whole wheat noodles which I can get in Superquinn or good grocery stores. They have a better texture and flavour and because they are dried in “nests” they are easier to cook without them sticking together.
- I couldn’t track down Sichuanese chillies – “facing-heaven” chillies chao tian jiao in Dublin so I used ordinary large dried Chinese chillies. Be careful not to use the very hot, smaller dried chillies from India, Thailand or Mexico. [I've since got facing heaven chillies in Beijing and they are much the same as those available in the Asia market here.]
- I’m working off a supply of Sichuan pepper that came from Beijing and is the real deal in terms of its lip-numbing quality. Elaine (@lainer_c) found Sichuan pepper in the Asian Supermarket in Rathmines, Dublin 6 which has worked well for her. Most of the Sichuan pepper imported into Asian supermarkets here is nothing like the real thing so watch out for other sources such as the Bart’s spices range.
- I got delicious Tianjin Preserved Vegetables in the Oriental Emporium in Jervis Street Dublin which is made by Yongnian Mengde Food Co. Ltd.This is essentially a pickled Chinese cabbage with garlic and keeps well in a cool, dry place. I brought back ya cai from China which is a little more authentic and delicious in this and fried green beans. It may be available in Asia stores here.
- I also picked up Tahini at the Oriental Emporium and used that as the sesame paste but Chinese sesame paste is better and also available in Asian markets.
- I now prefer to make my own homemade chilli oil. You can get bottle chilli oil at the Asia Market
- See earlier post on cookery books, ingredients and kitchen essentials for lots more handy tips.