Dan dan noodles 擔擔面 with delicious meat or vegan toppings

By Charleen - March 23, 2020

A classic Chinese street food, dan dan noodles 擔擔面 are supremely satisfying and easy to assemble with make-ahead components. Named for the long pole used to balance a pot of noodles and a pot of sauce across a street vendor's shoulders, this Szechuan dish is typically topped with ground pork richly flavored with pickled mustard green stems. Due to canceled vacation travel and a challenge by my daughter, I had time at home to perfect a delicious vegetarian dan dan noodle that is also visually and texturally satisfying. 

Vegetarian Dan Dan noodles with vegan topping (recipe below), but using egg noodles
There are as many variations of dan dan noodles 擔擔面 (dàn dàn miàn) as there are families that enjoy them. Ranging from soupy to dry, they share in the contrast of small browned, flavorful bits set off against coils of noodles, with the whole mixture bathed in a spicy, salty, acidic, nutty sauce. Szechuan cuisine is known for its complex layers of bold flavors that please and tantalize the senses, and this simple dish is extremely satisfying on all levels.

Pork dan dan noodles, traditional recipe from Land of Plenty.

Over the years, I have tried both of the recipes in Land of Plenty by Fuschia Dunlop, Cecilia Chang's recipe in The Seventh Daughterand Diana Kuan's recipe from the Appetite for China website. I also tried Andrea Nyugen's vegetarian recipe, which uses my favorite dried noodles made by the Quon Yick Noodle company. I am intrigued by the Woks of Life recipe, which adds fresh Chinese greens, but have not yet had a chance to try it.

Pork dan dan noodle, recipe from the Appetite for China website.

Dan dan noodles consists of 3 main components: the Sauce, the Noodles, the Topping, and some optional garnishes. It can be pre-mixed and served family style, but is also perfect for self-assembly in a noodle bar format. This makes it easy to accommodate those that love or hate pork, turkey, or beef. As discussed below, it is also easily adapted for vegetarian, vegan and even gluten-free guests.

The Sauce.

The basic flavor elements of the sauce arise from soy sauce, black vinegar, chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns, which add salty umami, sour-sweet, spicy and numbing qualities. In some versions, sesame paste may be added or substituted for the Sichuan peppercorns, changing the flavor and texture profile. 
Xie laoban's beef dandan noodles with sesame paste from Land of Plenty.
In part this may be due to a melding of dan dan noodles with another Szechuan noodle dish -- cold sesame noodles, in which sesame paste plays a major role. Peanut butter is sometimes added for a smoother texture in this satisfying, naturally vegan, noodle dish. My kids loved peanut butter noodles growing up, and our favorite recipe can be found here. 
Chinese sesame sauce, sesame paste or sesame butter.
We found that Mr. Xie's (Land of Plenty) and Ms. Nyugen's (Viet World Kitchen) sauces utilized too much sesame paste, which dominated the flavor and made the sauces too thick. The recipe in The Seventh Daughter was tasty, like a bowl of noodle soup, but the distinctive notes of Szechuan flavors were also muted. Both of our favorite sauces were on the thinner side, with just enough to easily coat and absorb into the hot noodles, allowing the noodles to shine as the star of the show. The flavor and texture of the Appetite for China and the traditional recipe in Land of Plenty were both excellent, but distinct. While we all agreed they were the top two, we could not agree on a ranking.
The traditional sauce from Dunlop, which does not have sesame paste
The thickest Nyugen sauce and thinner Kuan sauce made using water instead of chicken broth.
Chinese sesame paste or sauce is made of ground, roasted sesame seeds. As there is only a single ingredient and no emulsifying additives, the oil tends to separate from the solids with storage. It can take a bit of time, especially when the bottle is first opened, to stir it back into a thick, smooth sauce using a pair of chopsticks or butter knife to reach to the bottom. While tahini or peanut butter may be substituted for sesame paste, both flavor and texture are a bit different. See Note below.
Separated oil and solids need a bit of work to get blended into a thick, smooth paste

Chili oil is easily made by heating a neutral oil to 225-250°F and pouring it over ground chili flakes in a glass jar on a coaster, which is well labeled to prevent burns, until it has cooled. Keeping a jar of chili oil around on the counter allows you to personalize the heat level, and individual guests can ramp it up even further in their own bowls.  Or you can try Mom's Mala as a delicious option.

The Noodles. 

Dan dan noodle recipe from The Seventh Daughter, using medium thickness fresh frozen egg noodles
Dan dan noodles are traditionally made with fresh (frozen) or dried Chinese egg noodles. In our market, we can buy frozen or thawed egg noodles of several different thicknesses from New York. This dish works best with medium to thick noodles, as the very thin angel-hair thickness is not substantial enough to balance the sauce.
Of the dried Chinese noodles that I have tried, the regular thickness noodle (similar in size to spaghetti) made by the Quon Yick Noodle Company is by far the best. According to the Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey of 2018 Quon Yick was founded as a small noodle company in 1956 by Shew San Leong, and quickly became known for its dry noodles, won ton skins, and fortune cookies. 
Ingredients for vegetarian dan dan noodles
My family has used this dry noodle for as long as I can remember. The regular thickness noodle is a key ingredient for making golden Suzhou-style noodle cakes that are crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, ready to absorb the saucy stir-fry served with the noodle cake. The wide (or "large") Quon Yick noodle is similar to fettuccini, and used in noodle soups. This noodle, made of flour and egg whites, truly has the perfect texture for both boiled and pan-fried dishes. 
Quon Yick dried noodles take only about 4 minutes to cook (3 if you will be panfrying them after boiling)
For a vegan version of the dish, noodles made with just flour and water can be substituted, and rice noodles for pad thai can be substituted for a gluten-free version.

The Traditional Topping with Meat

While it is easiest to buy ground pork, beef or turkey in 1 pound packages, many Chinese dishes utilize a small amount (4-8 oz) of highly seasoned ground meat to add flavor. Once I realized that many of our favorite dishes -- from mapo tofu and braised eggplant to dry-fried green beans and dan dan noodles -- utilized a very similar meat mixture, I developed a recipe for a Szechuan Master Meat Mix that allowed me to cook 1 pound of meat at a time, to be used for all sorts of recipes over the following week or so.
Szechuan master meat mix used to top dan dan noodles, served alongside stirfried cabbage.
Key to the rich flavor of this mixture is a pickled Szechuan vegetable called sumiyacai. Indeed this pickle is so delicious that sometimes it is the only ingredient added to the cooked meat, although a bit of ginger, garlic or scallions adds a nice touch. The process of making sumiyacai takes over 6 months as the mustard green stems are boiled in brown sugar, dried and fermented with warm spices of star anise, Szechuan peppers, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and garlic. 
Dark, flavorful bits of suimiyacai pickled mustard green stems are used to season ground meats, with optional ginger/garlic.

Developing a Vegan Topping

My daughter recently challenged me to adapt some of our favorite dishes to a vegetarian diet, and to try eating vegetarian for 2 weeks. Given that I sometimes omit the meat altogether for convenience, relying upon the suimiyacai to add a depth of flavor to my shortcut Szechuan dry-fried green beans, I knew this pickled vegetable had to remain as part of my vegetarian Szechuan master mix. To add protein, I chopped up some dry tofu, a pressed and marinated form of tofu that is meaty in texture instead of being soft like regular tofu. For years growing up, dry tofu and tofu skins (yuba) were the only forms of tofu that I liked.
Dry tofu, seasoned with a firm texture, is the easiest tofu to introduce (See also my blog post on enjoying tofu)
Chopped, rehydrated Chinese winter mushrooms (shiitakes) were added to better soak up the marinade. Mushrooms are also a great source of the "meaty" taste conferred by amino acids, or umami. If some of the slices are not fully rehydrated with chalky white bands in the middle, simply put them back into the soaking water after slicing.
Soak dried Chinese winter, flower or black mushrooms (different forms of dried Shiitake, which are interchangeable) in water for an hour to rehydrate. Cut off tough stems that fail to soften, and dice up the caps.

With the meat topping, I usually allow some of the meat to become crispy. As I had a leftover carrot in the fridge, I decided to add finely chopped carrots for a bit of crunch. 
After gathering the ingredients, and chopping or measuring out the vegetables for the vegan topping and green onion garnish, the cooking and assembly is limited mostly by how fast you can get the water to boil!
 While the water was heating, I dry toasted the Szechuan peppercorns and a single dried red "facing heaven" chili as my daughter prefers mild food. This quickly became fragrant and I added some oil for cooking the carrot, dry tofu, mushroom mixture. When the carrots were cooked, but still crisp, I added the suimiyacai, ginger and garlic.

What a beautiful topping! The sauce ingredients were mixed and divided among 4 bowls. As soon as the noodles were cooked and drained, they were added to the bowls, topped with the tofu-mushroom-carrot-yacai mixture, and garnished with bright green scallions and/or cilantro.

This vegetarian version of dan dan noodles blew me away!  The topping was fully satisfying with its different textures, colors and flavors played out against the smooth noodles with their thin coating of tart-salty-spicy sauce.

Love2Chow Dan Dan Noodles with Two Toppings 
Making the toppings in advance as a Master Mix simplifies the preparation to mixing the sauce, cooking the noodles and chopping garnishes. 

Ingredients for 4 servings
Vegetarian Topping 
   4 dried Chinese mushrooms (dried shiitakes), soaked in water for at least 1 h
   4 oz (w) of dry tofu
   1 oz raw carrot
   2 tsp soy sauce (or 1/2 Tbs regular and 1/2 tsp dark soy sauce)
   1-2 tsp each of minced garlic and ginger (optional)
   2 Tbs suimiyacai
   1/2 tsp Szechuan peppercorns
   1-3 dry red chilis, such as "facing heaven" chilis
(Double the recipe to use an entire package of dry tofu to form a Vegan Szechuan Master Mix-although the topping is vegan, this dish is not due to eggs in the noodles)


Meat Topping
   1/2 tsp Szechuan peppercorns
   1-3 dry red chilis, such as "facing heaven" chilis available from Mala Market or Penzeys
   1/4 to 1/3 of a recipe of Szechuan Master Meat Mix
          (or stir-fry 4-6 oz (w) raw ground meat + 1-2 tsp each of suimiyacai, minced garlic and minced ginger in a hot pan with a little oil)

   3 Tbs soy sauce (or 2 Tbs regular and 1 Tbs dark soy sauce)
   1 Tbs sesame paste, with oil mixed back in
   2 Tbs Chinkiang (black) or balsamic vinegar
   1-3 Tbs chili oil including resuspended chili flake sediment
   1 Tbs sesame oil
   2 tsp sugar
   1/2 cup water

Noodles and garnishes
   1 pound fresh or frozen Chinese egg noodles or 8-10 oz dry Chinese noodles
   Chopped scallion and/or cilantro
   Chopped peanuts (optional)

1.1. For the vegetarian topping:
After dried mushrooms have softened, start boiling water for cooking noodles.
a. slice the rehydrated mushrooms in half. Excise and save any large, hard stems for flavoring stock. Finely dice the mushrooms. Finely dice the dry tofu and carrots.
b. Marinate the mushroom, dry tofu and carrots in the soy sauce with optional garlic and ginger. If you have it, dark soy adds a rich color.
c. Measure out the suimiyacai and Szechuan peppercorns. Cut the dry chilis into 2-3 pieces. Prepare the sauce while topping marinates.
d. Heat a wok, cast iron or heavy stainless steel pan over medium heat. Dry toast the Szechuan peppercorns and red chilis for about 30 sec or until it is fragrant (be careful not to burn them)
e. Stir in a Tbs of neutral cooking oil, turn up the heat to medium-high, and add optional garlic and ginger. After 10-15 s, add the marinated tofu mixture. Stir fry for 1-2 minutes and then add the suimiyacai, tossing until the mixture is hot. Remove from heat and set aside.

1.2. For the meat topping:
a. Heat a wok, cast iron or heavy stainless steel pan over medium heat. Dry toast the Szechuan peppercorns and red chilis for about 30 sec or until it is fragrant (be careful not to burn them)
b. Turn up the heat to medium-high, and add the Szechuan Master Meat Mix, tossing until the mixture is hot (or add some oil and cook the ground meat with the suimiyacai, garlic & ginger). Remove from heat and set aside.

Toppings can be made in advance. Re-warm, if necessary, while noodles are cooking
2. Mix sauce ingredients in a large bowl, if you will be serving the noodles family style, or in a regular cereal-sized bowl if you will be serving this as a noodle bar.

3. Cook the noodles per package directions. Generally, the fresh noodles are done in 3 minutes after returning to a boil, the Quon Yick noodles are done in 4-5 minutes, while spaghetti takes longer. Check by taking a taste of the noodle before removing from the hot water.

4. To serve family style, add drained noodles to the sauce, and toss until mixed. Spoon on the vegetarian or meat topping and garnish with the fresh herbs and chopped peanuts, if using. Or divide everything among four individual serving bowls. For a noodle bar format, toss hot noodles with a bit of oil to prevent sticking and set out with separate bowls of sauce, topping(s), and garnishes

Serve with extra chili oil, toasted Szechuan peppercorns, or Sriracha sauce.

Click here for the printable Love2Chow recipe.

Note: January 2022: The Mala Market sells a sesame paste with the finest flavor and texture. After trying this recipe using Mala Market sesame paste and Mom's Mala chili oil, I have decided that both of these products are well worth their price!)

🐾 Dried mushrooms, Szechuan peppercorns, Chinkiang black vinegar, soy sauce, dried chilis and suimiyacai can easily be kept for over a year. Once opened, the suimiyacai should be refrigerated in its clipped resealed foil pouch, or transferred to a glass jar. To maintain the best flavor, the Sichuan peppercorns and peanuts can also be kept in the refrigerator. Sesame paste and chili oil are stored at room temperature.

🐾 The filling is extremely versatile and can be used as a shortcut timesaver for a variety of other dishes. Click this link for ideas on ways to use Szechuan Master Meat Mix. This  new Vegetarian Szechuan Master Mix can be used in similar ways, for vegan versions of the mapo tofu and green beans or vegetarian versions of the Asian Nachos.

🍃 If you have leftover noodles from a prior dish, they can be added back to the pot to warm up just before draining the new batch of noodles. Or, if the leftover noodles have been tossed in leftover sauce, they can be heated in the microwave.

🍃Save the stems and soaking water (strain through cloth to remove particulates) for making dashi for ramen, or simply to add mushroom flavor to sauces and stocks.

🐾 While dan dan noodles may bear a superficial resemblance to Peking noodles or Zha-jiang mein, another dish consisting of a meaty sauce served over noodles, the flavor profile is completely different.

DID YOU TRY THIS RECIPE?  What are your favorite Asian noodle dishes?

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