As a child, I have always been very particular about my food preferences. Looking back, I guess I took it for granted that I didn’t have any food allergies and that I had a lot of choices since my parents owned a restaurant. That said my husband has food allergies and grew up faced with limitations that are difficult for a child. When we met, I had a newfound appreciation for expanding my palate and since we were married I made it my goal to find ingredient substitutes so that he can enjoy dishes he has never tried before. And I’ve had the pleasure of seeing his excitement with the Dan Dan Noodles I made for him.
Before I continue, I think I owe an explanation of why my hubby was never able to enjoy this dish anywhere else. There are almost as many different ways of preparing this Szechuan recipe as there are Chinese chefs! Dan Dan Noodles a simple dish, full of soft, silky noodles, some great meat toppings and a wonderful hum from the raw garlic. There are many variations. But the one thing you’ll find in every American Chinese recipe for Dan Dan Noodles is a flavored sauce that includes peanut butter (sometimes substituted with sesame paste), crushed roasted peanuts, garlic, and hot chili oil. Some include roasted Szechuan peppercorn, although this is sometimes left out to achieve a sweeter, less spicy, and less soupy result.
Dan Dan Noodles is another classic dish in the western Sichuan province of China. They make this dish in huge buckets that they carry on poles over their shoulders. “Dan” means poles, and the dish got its name in the earliest time when a noodle peddler carried his pole over his shoulder, he usually carried two baskets on either side as he walked along streets. The baskets contained noodles and sauce that were sold to passers-by and residents who lived on the streets. These noodles cost almost nothing, and gradually local people called it Dan Dan Noodle.
This recipe for Dan Dan Noodles combines the spicy sauce with dried Chinese egg noodles. If you are allergic to peanuts like my husband, you can substitute the peanut butter with sesame paste. However, I found an amazing peanut butter substitute made from soy ingredients that tastes just like real peanut butter! Better yet, it was a crunchy peanut butter substitute, so it also provided the crunchy texture that you would get from the chopped peanut garnish. I also made a dish without substitutions for myself and compared them side by side. It was amazing!
4 servings of Chinese rice noodles or pasta (either fresh or dried, with egg or without)
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 parts chopped
6 Tbsp shallots, chopped
2 Tbsp ginger, peeled and minced
2 Tbsp garlic, minced
1 lb lean ground pork
3-5 Tbsp of Sichuan chilli bean paste (douban jiang, 豆瓣醬)
1/2tsp Szechuan peppercorns
For the sauce
3 tsp sesame oil
3 Tbsp Chinese sesame paste
3 Tbsp peanut butter
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp Chinese black rice vinegar (Chinkiang vinegar, 镇江香醋)
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cups chicken broth
a big handful of peanuts, toasted in a dry pan and chopped
a handful of cilantro, chopped
chili oil (optional) 辣油
In a dry pan over medium-low heat, gently toast Szechuan peppercorns (1/4 tsp for the pork). Transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a powder.
Heat vegetable oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Add in ginger, scallions, garlic, and shallots. Sauté for about 5 min, until fragrant and slightly softened. Add in pork, 3 Tbsp of douban jiang, and the ground Szechuan peppercorns. Stir-fry until pork is thoroughly cooked and a lot of the moisture has been cooked off. Set aside.
Heat the chicken broth until simmering. Put the hot broth in a mixing bowl, add in sesame paste and peanut butter, and stir until dissolved and no longer lumpy. Add the sesame oil, black rice vinegar, and sugar. Season with salt. Adjust broth if necessary (for a sweeter broth, add in more sugar. For more nuttiness, throw in more peanut butter and sesame paste, but dissolve it in a small bowl of broth first). Add another dash of sesame oil.
In a pot of salted, boiling water, blanch the pea sprouts until tender. Drain and set aside. In the same pot of boiling water, cook the noodles according to instructions. I usually boil dried noodles for 6 to 8 minutes, then turn off the heat and let the noodles sit for a one minute longer. Then I drain the noodles well in a colander.
Place a portion of cooked noodles in a serving bowl. Ladle in the sauce. Top with a bundle of pea sprouts and a few spoonfuls of meat topping. Garnish with cilantro and chopped peanuts, and a dollop of chili oil if you desire. Serve immediately.