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Dan dan noodles

Time 30 minutes
Yields Serves 8
Dandan noodles
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
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Anyone who’s ever worked with me in the kitchen knows that I like to tinker with dishes for a while before I decide to finally offer them on the menu. But then once I’ve gotten them where I want them to be, I tend to let them be. Normally, recipes for my menu items stay consistent and don’t change. However, there’s been one exception. The dandan noodles at my restaurant Lukshon.

Dandan mian is a staple of the Sichuan region of China. It’s also known as peddler’s noodles, the name coming from the wooden pole used to carry noodles and sauce over the shoulders of street vendors. Such humble roots, yet such complex flavor. Each time I’ve tried them, here or overseas, I’ve liked them — even though no two versions have ever seemed to be the same.

Training in French kitchens, I learned that most classic dishes have established “correct” versions. But it seems dandan noodles don’t suffer from such recipe rigidity. Normally they are made with a thin wheat noodle, with a sauce made from sesame and/or peanuts, along with ground pork cooked in doubanjian, a spicy fermented broad bean paste further flavored with Sichuan peppercorns.

But that’s where it stops. There is no normal when it comes to dandan. I’ve had versions with thick noodles and thin noodles. I’ve had versions that were soupy or dry, spicy or sweet, and even a cold version. There’s a Japanese version called tantan mein that is a type of ramen dish.

So a few years ago, when I decided to open Lukshon (which, incidentally, means “noodle” in Yiddish), I wanted to tackle the elusive dandan, a task I found more daunting than I could have imagined. In fact, subconsciously I think I may have opened Lukshon just so I could have a place to tinker with dandan noodles.

I knew I had to start by finding an anchoring principle. For me that is called ma-la, literally “numb-hot” in Mandarin. Ma-la is a core flavor profile of Sichuan cooking and is used to various degrees in countless dishes of the region.

This flavor combination is created by modulating hot dried red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, an earthy Chinese spice that numbs your tongue. They’re not actually peppercorns but are from the citrus family (in fact, they were banned in the United States for several decades because of fear that they would spread citrus canker to domestic crops; the ban was lifted in 2005).

Ma-la is like a culinary showdown. A heavyweight wrestling match in your mouth. Or if you use too much, it could feel like a battle between your dentist’s drill and Novocain. The idea is to keep these two powerhouses in balance, never letting one overpower the other.

But despite the tension of ma-la, dandan noodles are ultimately a humble dish — a simple, soulful and comforting bowl of noodles. Think spaghetti Bolognese with a lusty kick to the face.

My version starts with a sauce made from ground sesame seeds and peanuts. A soothing sesame and peanut paste cooked with chicken stock or a classic Chinese Shanton broth forms the base of the dish. Unlike many other recipes for dandan, I don’t mix my sesame with other parts of the dish, in essence, deconstructing it a bit.

I then make a Sichuan flavor base that carries all the heat. This second sauce is complex and deeply flavored, containing an array of fermented beans, dry chiles, garlic, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns and black vinegar, and carried in a dry aged Chinese rice wine. It will ultimately combine with the ground pork, becoming the noodle topping.

I also make a shallot-chile jam, a condiment that can be used separately. I add it just to give more depth. The sweetness of the caramelized shallots plays well against the funk of fermented broad beans.

Making this dish is a lot easier than it seems. You don’t have to measure anything exactly. The ingredients may sound exotic, but they’re all widely available in Chinese markets. Make everything a day in advance and just cook noodles, heat the sauces and you’re ready to go.

Should you follow this recipe exactly? Maybe, maybe not. The key to making dandan noodles your own is finding the right balance of heat to numb. So you’ll need to experiment. It’s taken me years to find the right formula, so my recipe is staying put. At least for right now.

1

In a wok heated over high heat, add enough oil to lightly coat the base of the wok. Add the ground pork, chopped garlic and ginger, stirring until the pork is browned, 3 to 5 minutes.

2

Reduce the heat to low and stir in the Sichuan flavor base (add more or less depending on desired texture and heat). Cook the base with the pork to marry the flavors, then add the cornstarch slurry. Return the heat to high, and cook until the liquid comes to a boil and thickens, stirring constantly.

3

Pour over the prickly ash oil and chile oil and remove from heat.

4

In each of 8 serving bowls, ladle one-fourth cup dandan sesame sauce. Divide the noodles evenly among the bowls. Spoon over the pork and drizzle over a little black vinegar to taste. Garnish with crushed peanuts and serve immediately.

Sichuan Flavor Base

1

In the bowl of a blender, combine the chili bean sauce, hoisin sauce, Sichuan peppercorns, red chiles, shaoxing wine, sweet soy sauce, Chinkiang black vinegar, chile oil and prickly ash oil. Blend to a smooth paste.

2

In a large sauté pan heated over medium heat, add enough peanut oil to coat the bottom of the pan and add the minced ginger and garlic. Sauté until aromatic. Add the mixture from the blender and stir well to combine with the garlic and ginger. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the raw flavor of the garlic and ginger is cooked out, about 5 minutes.

3

Meanwhile, bring the chicken broth to a boil. Whisk in the slurry and cook until the broth is thickened.

4

Stir the thickened chicken broth and black beans into the sauté pan. Season with the white pepper and sugar. The base will keep, covered and refrigerated, up to 1 week.

Dan Dan Sesame Base

1

In a large sauté pan heated over medium-high heat, add the peanut oil, garlic, ginger and shallot-chile jam. Cook until aromatic and the mixture begins to form a fond (flavor base) at the bottom of the pan. Deglaze with the shaoxing wine, scraping the flavoring from the base of the pan, then pour the mixture into the bowl of a blender.

2

Puree the mixture with the peanuts, sesame paste, dark and light soy sauces and chicken broth (do not overfill the blender; this can be done in batches and combined).

3

Pour the sauce back into the sauté pan and simmer the sauce (careful not to boil or burn) for 10 to 15 minutes to cook out the raw garlic and ginger flavor. Season to taste with pepper and salt. The sauce will thicken as it cools; loosen with a little water before using. The sauce will keep for up to 1 week, covered and refrigerated.