The grandfather of a friend of mine was a chef, and he came to Chengdu before the war, eager to discover the secrets of Sichuanese cooking. When he arrived he made his way to a famous restaurant that served an extraordinary delicious fried beef. He begged the chef to teach him the recipe but was rudely turned away. Undeterred in his quest, he crept back to the restaurant after closing time and stole the bundles of rubbish lying outside. Inside the bundles he found half-eaten remains of the fabled dish, from which he was able to deduce the ingredients and cooking method and make a tasty imitation.
The following recipe is my own recreation of a legendary and unique version of dan dan noodles served in a tiny restaurant near Sichuan University. It is the fruit of repeated visits to the restaurant over a number of years, during which I begged and cajoled to the unsmiling proprietor Mr. Zie for his culinary secrets. On one occasion he told me the ingredients of the delicious meaty topping: other times he let me watch as his cooks prepared the seasonings on the noodle bowls. He may have witheld a detail or two, but the following recipe has met with the wholehearted approval of several of the restaurant’s most devoted and regular customers.
These noodles are not for the fainthearted – they are shamelessly spicy, but utterly delicious to those who know them well. They are generally served in individual bowls, each containing a smattering of sauce ingredients, a small portion of noodles, and a teaspoon or two of ground meat. I have, however, given instructions for one large bowlful.
In Chengdu the dish is made with fresh flour-and-water noodles, delivered every day in a pile of flour-dusted bamboo baskets. Here, simple flour-and-water noodles are only available dried, but you could use fresh egg noodles if you prefer.
- 1 pound fresh Chinese noodles or 12 ounces dried Chinese noodles
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
- 3 Sichuanese dried chiles, snipped in half, seeds discarded
- ½ teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper
- 2 tablespoons Sichuanese ya cai or Tianjin preserved vegetable
- 4 ounces ground beef
- 2 teaspoons light soy sauce
- Salt to taste
- ½ - 1 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 4 teaspoons sesame paste
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons dark chili oil with chile flakes
1. Heat 1 tablespoon of peanut oil in a wok over moderate flame. When the oil is hot but not yet smoking, add the chiles and Sichuan pepper and stir-fry briefly until the oil is spicy and fragrant. Take care not to burn the spices. Add the ya cai or preserved vegetable and continue to stir-fry until hot and fragrant. Add the meat, splash in the soy sauce, and stir-fry until the meat is brown and a little crispy, but not too dry. Season with salt to taste. When the meat is cooked, remove the mixture from the wok and set aside.
2. Put the sauce ingredients into a serving bowl and mix together.
3. Cook the noodles according to the instructions on the package. Drain them and add them to the sauce in the serving bowl. Sprinkle with the meat mixture and serve immediately.
4. When the bowl is on the table, give the noodles a good stir until the sauce and meat are evenly distributed.