Since reading Fuchsia Dunlop's delightful memoir of eating in China, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, I've been wanting to make Dan Dan noodles, the fiery Sichuanese street snack to which she devotes a chapter of the book. Here's how she describes the noodle shop where she ate daily in Chengdu, razed in the early 2000s to make way for modern development:
The Dan Dan noodles — well, they were undoubtedly the best in town, the best anyone had ever tasted. They looked quite plain, a small bowlful of noodles topped with a spoonful of dark, crisp minced beef. But as soon as you stirred them with your chopsticks, you awakened the flavors in the slick of spicy seasonings at the base of the bowl, and coated each strand of pasta in a mix of soy sauce, chilli oil, sesame paste and Sichuan pepper. The effect was electrifying. Within seconds, your mouth was on fire, your lips quivering under the onslaught of the pepper, and your whole body radiant with heat.
Dan Dan noodles have become quite popular and appear on most Sichuanese restaurant menus, but Dunlop says she never tasted any as good at those at that Chengdu shop. After months of wheedling bits of information from the ornery owner, she managed to reproduce the dish and published the recipe in her book.
First, a note about ingredients. I was able to find everything at a small Chinatown grocery in Boston except for ya cai, Sichuanese preserved mustard greens. I'll keep looking for next time, but for now I made the rather lame substitution of kimchi, which I realize probably has a totally different flavor profile but worked nicely enough. Fresh Chinese flour-and-water noodles can be found in the refrigerator section, sometimes labeled "plain noodle." Sichuan pepper is a dark red peppercorn, confusingly labeled on my package as "dried prickly ash."
So how did it turn out? The sauce's spice was just barely tolerable, but what actually pushed my limits was the extreme salt. Mixing in more noodles (I had boiled the whole 16 oz. package even though Dunlop's recipe calls for only 200 grams) made this a hotly delicious if still quite salty dish. I've altered the recipe to my taste below, as well as converted from metric units. Remember, if you want the authentic version, you need to use half the noodles (or make twice the sauce).
1. Roast 1/2 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns in a wok until brown and fragrant and crush them to a powder. Mix the pepper with 4 T. chilli oil, 2 T. sesame paste, 2 T. light soy sauce, and 1 tsp. dark soy sauce. (Dunlop calls for 3 T. light soy sauce and 2 tsp. dark, but I found this too salty.) Divide the sauce among 2-4 serving bowls.
2. Snip 3 Sichuanese dried chillies in half and discard the seeds. Heat 1 T. peanut oil in a wok over medium heat. When the oil is hot but not yet smoking, add the dried chillies and 1/2 tsp. whole Sichuan peppercorns. Stir-fry until the oil is fragrant, taking care not to burn the spices. Turn the flame up, add 2 T. ya cai (Sichuanese preserved mustard greens) and continue to stir-fry until hot and fragrant. Add 1/4 lb. of ground beef and 2 tsp. light soy sauce and stir-fry until the meat is brown and crisp, but not too dry.
3. Cook a 16 oz. package of fresh Chinese flour-and-water noodles according to package directions (boiling for 3 minutes should do it). Add a portion to the sauce in each serving bowl. Sprinkle each bowl with meat mixture and serve. Before eating, give the noodles a good stir until the sauce and meat are evenly mixed.