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Dan Dan Mein (Street Peddler’s Noodles)

Boy, you guys are really something – thanks to you, we made the cut in Round 3 of Project Food Blog! This is my entry for challenge #4: photograph step-by-step instructions for a technique or recipe.

About a year ago, during dim sum with my parents, I wondered aloud whether I can make char siu bao (BBQ pork buns) at home. My mom’s ears perked up and that afternoon, she was digging into a closet, rummaging through boxes, emerging triumphant with a thin piece of paper. She handed me the paper, which had, printed in faded ink, a recipe in Chinese for char siu bao. Coming from a woman who never uses recipes, I knew this was a very, very big deal. Reading through, I saw that it not only unabashedly listed lard as a major ingredient, but also used old-timey Chinese measurements. Oh dear. It had me at catty.

You can imagine my excitement, then, when, as I was swooning over a particularly fabulous bowl of dan dan mein a couple months ago, she told me she would send me a recipe. For the next few days, I checked my email even more compulsively than usual and nearly jumped out of my chair when her message arrived. I opened the email, which contained one simple link – a link to PF Chang’s Dan Dan Noodles recipe.

Now, I don’t exactly have a problem with PF Chang. Ok, that’s a lie – let me rephrase. I don’t have a problem with it as long as we agree it’s not Chinese food. But here was my mom, my very own made-in-Hong-Kong mother, and she had just sent me a recipe from PF Chang. Well, let’s just say it’s a rather… interesting… turn of events. Then again, she had sat patiently at her computer to find and send me that link, undeterred by her modem-speed connection. Isn’t it the least I can do to actually make some noodles?

Which is why the other night, I sat down on the couch and opened up my laptop. In the hopes of soliciting a few non-PF-Chang-sponsored perspectives, I typed “dan dan noodles” into Google. And fell, head-first, down the rabbit hole.

Dan dan mein, you see, originated as a street food in the Szechuan province and simply translates to “Peddler’s Noodles”, with dan signifying the pole the street vendors used to carry their baskets and stoves. But from there, the history gets unbelievably complicated and confusing.

As far as I can tell, there are at least five major classes of this noodle dish, spanning four different countries. Those closer to the original Szechuan version are made by piling warm noodles over a pool of chili oil and topping with minced meat and preserved vegetables. More modern versions add sesame paste to the sauce, but whether this modification came from Taiwan is up for debate. In Japan, dan dan mein became tantanmen and looks remarkably like ramen, with the spice kick significantly toned down. Meanwhile, this side of the Pacific, they remain a drier, tossed form of noodle dish but have evolved to be sweeter/less spicy due to omission of Szechuan peppercorns and frequent addition of peanut butter. Sometimes, they’re even served cold.

Perhaps most interesting of all, though, are the versions found in Hong Kong and Shanghai that seem to have taken bits and pieces from all those other adaptations. There, when you order dan dan mein, you get spicy noodles topped with minced meat, sitting in a rich broth streaked with sesame-peanut paste. This last version sounds most like what I was swooning over and naturally became the starting point to my own attempt. Along the way, of course, I couldn’t help but throw in a few changes of my own – a splash of black vinegar, a sprinkle of ground Szechuan peppercorns, a bundle of blanched pea shoots, a dollop of chili oil – all inspired by the other members of the big happy dan dan mein family.

You know, maybe my mom was trying to tell me something after all. In the end, what really matters isn’t whether a recipe is Chinese, Taiwanese, PF-Changinese, or some mixed-up jumble of all of the above. The true test of any recipe is whether what you end up with satisfies your stomach and soothes your soul. These noodles? They pass with flying colors.

—-

You can make dan dan mein with most types of Asian noodles you find at the store, either fresh or dried: Chinese wheat noodles (with egg or without), Japanese udon, Korean noodles, rice noodles, etc. Even spaghetti or linguine can work in a pinch. But if you do have some time, perhaps on a weekend day, making your own noodles can transform the dish from just delicious to absolutely sublime. And if, like me, you have the helping hands of your husband, sister, and friends, making noodles can even be a social affair.

To make Chinese-style eggless noodles, start with the dough. Mix together 2 cups of flour and ½ tsp of salt. Slowly incorporate water (about ½ cup) until the dough comes together.

Knead until smooth and slightly stiff. Wrap in plastic and let rest for at least 30 min.

Cut off a small piece of dough and flatten into a rough rectangle with your fingers. Fold in thirds and pass through the thickest setting of your pasta roller. Do this about 5-6 times, dusting with flour as often as needed to keep dough from sticking.

Thin out the sheet by decreasing the pasta roller setting one notch at a time. Stop at either the 3rd or 4th setting depending on your preferred noodle thickness.

Dust the sheet with flour and hang to dry for about 15-20 min. Repeat with the rest of the dough. Cut each sheet into noodles using the pasta roller’s cutter slot. Toss with flour and lay on baking sheet to dry a bit before cooking.

This makes about 2-3 servings of noodles. To make more, I suggest making a second batch of dough instead of scaling up because a larger amount of flour becomes harder to knead and work with.

Adapted from this Chinese recipe. You can find dou ban jiang and Chinese sesame paste at Asian supermarkets.

From a reader’s comments, it seems that saltiness of dou ban jiang seems to vary by brand, so start with 3 Tbsp of the paste and taste the meat topping to see if you like that level of salt. Add more according to your taste. I generally prefer things on the salty side and I use Lee Kum Kee brand of dou ban jiang, so I ended up using about 5 Tbsp of dou ban jiang.

4 servings of noodles (either fresh or dried, with egg or without, store-bought or homemade)
4 handfuls of pea sprouts (or your favorite green leafy vegetable, like spinach)

For the meat topping:
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
6 Tbsp scallions, green and white parks chopped
6 Tbsp shallots, chopped
2 Tbsp ginger, peeled and minced
2 Tbsp garlic, minced
1 lb lean ground pork
3-5 Tbsp of dou ban jiang (chili bean paste)
½ tsp Szechuan peppercorns

For the broth:
6 cups chicken stock
~3 tsp sesame oil
~3 Tbsp Chinese sesame paste (which is different from tahini)
~3 Tbsp peanut butter
~2 tsp sugar
~2 tsp black vinegar
salt

To garnish:
a big handful of peanuts, toasted in a dry pan and chopped
a handful of cilantro, chopped
chili oil
Szechuan peppercorns

Toast the peppercorns: In a dry pan over medium-low heat, gently toast Szechuan peppercorns (¼ tsp for the pork and some extra to garnish the noodles). Transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a powder.

Make the meat topping: Heat vegetable oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Once pan is hot, add in ginger, scallions, garlic, and shallots. Saute for about 5 min, until fragrant and slightly softened. Add in pork, 3 Tbsp of dou ban jian, and ground Szechuan peppercorns. Stir-fry until pork is thoroughly cooked and a lot of the moisture has been cooked off. Taste and add more dou ban jian to adjust salt and spicy levels, if needed. Set aside.

Make the broth: Heat the stock until simmering. Put a couple ladles of hot broth in a small bowl, add in sesame paste and peanut butter, and stir until dissolved and no longer lumpy. Add this mixture back into the pot, as well as the sesame oil, black vinegar, and sugar. Season with salt. This is the starting point but now, you get to adjust the broth to how you like it. Taste the broth. If you want a sweeter broth, add in more sugar. If you like nuttiness, throw in more peanut butter and sesame paste (again, dissolve it in a small bowl of broth first) and another dash of sesame oil. Taste again and make final seasoning adjustments with salt.

Assemble the noodles: In a pot of salted, boiling water, blanch the pea shoots until tender. Drain and set aside. In the same pot of boiling water, cook the noodles according to instructions (if using homemade noodles, these will take only one minute). For fresh noodles, I like to cook each portion separately to avoid having to untangle a huge mess of noodles later.

Place a portion of cooked noodles in a large bowl. Ladle in broth. Top with a bundle of pea shoots and a few spoonfuls of meat topping . Garnish with cilantro, chopped peanuts, a sprinkle of toasted Szechuan peppercorns, and a dollop of chili oil.

Serve and eat immediately.


Yield: about 4 servings
Time: ~30 min using store-bought noodles (+ 2 hrs to make homemade noodles)

105 Comments

  1. 13 October 2010 at 7:38 pm

    I am learning so much with these posts…Thanks a lot for YOUR lesson!!

    • angi said:
      13 October 2010 at 10:58 pm

      I’m learning so much too and I’m loving it! Thanks for visiting!

  2. 13 October 2010 at 8:44 pm

    I am a noodle lover from way back, so you already won me over with the subject line. Your tutorial has strong photos—very well done.
    This is my first visit to your blog—don’t know how I missed you! If this post is representative of what you have here, I am in for a treat.

    • angi said:
      13 October 2010 at 11:00 pm

      Don’t worry, Debi, I missed like 50 great blogs in the first few rounds too – there were just too many good ones and too little time. Thanks for visiting now! Noodles lovers unite! :)

  3. 14 October 2010 at 5:55 am

    AWESOME post! I feel like I fell down the rabbit hole too while I was reading this informative post! I cant get enough of background info about food, so this was so interesting to me. And your photos were also amazing, I would say a perfect entry for this challenge. :) Voted, and good luck!!

    • angi said:
      14 October 2010 at 7:54 pm

      Thanks Amanda! I hope you’re safely back out of the rabbit hole now! :)

  4. ediblecville said:
    14 October 2010 at 7:28 pm

    Gorgeous! I loved that you made your own noodles. My stomach just growled :D The only way it woulda been better is if you had actually used lard lol, Cheers! Just voted…

    • angi said:
      14 October 2010 at 7:56 pm

      Oh good idea – why didn’t I think of adding a scoop of lard to the whole thing? ;) Thanks so much for your vote!

  5. 14 October 2010 at 10:36 pm

    I totally agree with your philosophy. We sometimes miss out on some good, flavorful food when we deem it not authentic enough. Liked the flow of your post and the step-by-step – that shower of noodles from the pasta machine makes me want to buy one right now (machine, not noodles). My vote’s in. Good luck!

    • angi said:
      15 October 2010 at 12:21 am

      Heena, you should definitely buy a pasta machine and I promise I don’t work for a pasta machine company! Making noodles is really fun and there’s something so calming about rolling out the dough. :) Thanks so much for your vote!

  6. Patty said:
    14 October 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Goodness gracious! The photos of the noodle making process are out of this world amazing! WOW WOW WOW! Very impressive and delicious too! This dish is right up my alley – will most definitely try making this as well, but not sure I can bust out my own noodles (certainly not ones that would taste good). You’ve got my vote. Also, like the reference to PF changinese….that is hilarious.

    • angi said:
      15 October 2010 at 12:23 am

      Patty, I promise you can absolutely make your own noodles and they will taste awesome. I actually was really scared about making noodles just with flour and water, but in the end, they turn out to be a lot easier to work with than I thought. And it’s kind of amazing to think that those noodles came from nothing more than two (well, three when you count the salt) ingredients.Thanks so much for reading and voting!

  7. 15 October 2010 at 12:26 am

    What a fun project! And a great tutorial and pictures nonetheless! Good luck in round 4!

    • angi said:
      15 October 2010 at 3:45 pm

      Thanks so much!

  8. Alisa said:
    17 October 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Now I wish I had gotten that pasta machine! This is delicious! Thanks for sharing the recipe, i hope I can make this one soon :)

    • angi said:
      18 October 2010 at 6:37 am

      Get the pasta machine, Alisa! You won’t regret it, I promise. :) But even before you get it, you should give this recipe a try with store-bought noodles, which is what I plan to do when I don’t have time to make my own noodles. Thanks so much for reading!

  9. NoodleSchnoodle said:
    28 November 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Been looking for over a year for “din din” per the Number One Noodle Shop in Paris. Known around the the world as a cure for the NY to Paris jet lag. Sweats out all that poison! Thanks!

    • angi said:
      29 November 2010 at 7:03 pm

      Ooo this would definitely be excellent jet-lag food indeed – brilliant! Thanks for reading!

  10. NoodleSchnoodle said:
    27 December 2010 at 10:04 am

    I’m thinking that 5 Tbsp of dou ban jiang (chili bean paste) was too much, a massive amount of salt. Next time I will try
    3 tbsp of the bean paste and 2 of Sriracha. I made it last week, closed my eyes and I was back in Paris at the Number One Noodle Shop!!!
    Thanks a million and Happy New Year

    • angi said:
      7 January 2011 at 5:58 pm

      Oh I like the idea of mixing in Sriracha! I do tend to make things on the salty side, so perhaps I did go a little overboard with the dou ban jiang. Also, I wonder if it depends on what brand of dou ban jiang we use? I mostly use the Lee Kum Kee brand of sauces.

  11. NoodleSchnoodle said:
    20 January 2011 at 10:36 am

    The one in the cute shaped jar….Sichuan Gao Fu Ji Food Co. I’m making it tomorrow nite for guests, and one does not like picante food! Sorry, it’s 3 to one on that vote!
    Wish me luck……..

    • angi said:
      21 January 2011 at 3:25 pm

      Fun! I hope your dinner party turned out fabulous, Noodle and maybe you converted your anti-spicy-food friend over to a spicier (and more delicious) lifestyle? I’ve never tried that brand of dou ban jiang but it’s very likely the salt level is different in the brand I use. I’m glad you’re able to adjust the amounts to make a dish you enjoy – that’s what truly matters! :)

  12. NoodleSchnoodle said:
    30 January 2011 at 5:28 am

    The Dan Dan was a great success, I just put less of the meat mix in the persons that was not into hot. He loved it.
    And I found pea shoots at the International Market……..what a great taste, like a jazzed up spinach.
    All the years of growing peas and we fed the vines to the cows….who knew?
    Thanks for the great “receipt”…… Noodle

    • angi said:
      31 January 2011 at 11:19 am

      So happy you liked the recipe, Noodle, and that your dinner party was a success! :)

  13. NoodleSchnoodle said:
    26 November 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Been almost a year! Cold weather and Dan Dan!!!….. this time I had to substitute everything…lol I read that every street vendor in China made it a different way, so did I. I think as long as you have noodles, pork, and Szechuan pepper…you have it made. It turned out great. But oatmeal WITH bacon and eggs….. madness!!!

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