Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, where one man travels the world in search of his missing package of Dunkaroos. I’m your tenacious tracker of treats, Jon O’Guin. Today’s recipe is one I have heard whispered in dark shadows for a time. Words of temptation and excitement murmured from figures sitting behind clouds of smoke in shady bars in sweltering foreign climes. I had to know more. I had to investigate. What are Dan Dan noodles? I come to you with an answer. Not a full one, not a perfect one, but the one I’ve found. And yet I still have no idea where those goddamn Dunkaroos are. Anyway, if you just want the recipe, click here to jump on down. For the rest of us, let’s hit the streets and see what we turn up.
Dan Dan Into the Room (You Know You Want It)
Dan Dan noodles are a dish of Sichaun or Szechuan cuisine. The alteration in spelling comes from the difficulty in Romanizing Asiatic languages. Romanizing, which I think I’ve glibly referred to before as if you should know what it means but never explained (editor: I actually DID explain it in our Sriracha post) is not the process of enlisting a language into the Legion and forcing it to swear allegiance to the Emperor-
Languages are notoriously bad in Phalanx formation.
But rather refers to the process of converting a language’s sounds into the Latin alphabet. To which you might say “but Jon, you wrote that in English, not Latin” to which I respond “And who told you England invented these letters?” Yes, the majority of European languages use Latinate Alphabets: they may have added markings, or a letter here or there, changed the grammar, etc, but they symbols they use to record the sounds are derived from Roman ones. Which can be especially tricky with languages that don’t WORK the same way as the Latin Alphabet supposes. Chinese, for instance, is tonal. For a quick example: here’s the word “Bi” in Chinese. If pronounced like “bee”, it means “force”. But if you say it like “beEE”, with an upward inflection? That’s ‘nose’. Then, if you DROP the pitch, “BEEee”, that’s “wall”. Now, in face to face explanation, that’s pretty easy to convey. But it SUCKS to write down, because the language just doesn’t quite match up.
This is relevant both in Sichuan/Szechuan (which, if I had to be forced to spell phonetically, would be written “seh-shwan”) and the dish in question: Dan Dan Noodles, or “tantanmien”. First though, some more context: Sichaun (By the way, I’m definitely just going to switch spellings as I feel like at the moment, so be ready for that) cuisine is one of the major cuisines of China. It is, to be hugely reductive, the Tex-Mex of China: It’s known for using a LOT of garlic and peppers in its cuisine, and is so reliant on a particular variety that they’re NAMED after it. (Szechuan Peppercorns. Which, trust me, we’re going to talk about today.) It’s spicy and cool, and a common cuisine for street foods and other uses. Which is where our dish actually comes from, if you couldn’t tell by the name.
I’m sure this random picture from someone visiting the area perfectly grasps all there is to know about it.
“Dan Dan Noodles”, or tantanmien, were a snack on the streets of Szechuan decades ago. Basically, these dudes would have these big poles over their shoulders, and baskets on their left and right. Each side had both the noodles, and a spicy meat sauce, in containers. The meal was easy and cheap, and the poles carrying the baskets are dan dan poles. Thus, over time, the dish became dan dan noodles, which translates to “pole noodles” or “peddler’s noodles”. Mian/Men is just Chinese for “noodle” (which is why you get Chow Mein and Lo Mein. As well as Ramen.)
So that’s where the dish comes from, what’s in it? I’m glad you asked. Because the big draw of the dish is the chili oil, and when we’re talking Sichaun chili oil, we gotta talk about Szechuan peppercorns, ma la, and more.
Man, Ma La Mauled My Lama’s Llama
I briefly and only technically somewhat referenced ma la before, in my discussion about the history of Chicken Salad, of all places. But, for those unwilling to read a fascinatingly multicultural history for a very white dish, the important thing is that there was a mala sauce involved, which is, in turn, based on the principle of ma la. Translated, ma la means something akin to “numbing spicy”, and is the Chinese designation for the EFFECT that Szechaun peppercorns produce. They’re not spicy in the sense of being pungently fiery, like, say, a habanero or ghost pepper. Instead, they produce an entirely different effect. One that makes more sense if you’re Asian.
And that’s not some kind of obscure racial dig, but rather a fascinating detail about cultural culinary norms: In many Asian nations, particularly China and Southeast Asia, there’s a more robust understanding and desire for texture in their dishes. Food should not only have interesting flavors, but interesting textures as well. Words that can only be rendered in English as “slimy” or “rubbery” are actually positive terms in their native language. Deer tendon is a popular dish in some locales, which is either hugely tough and chewy, or slimy and gelatinous, depending on how you cook it.
Apparently, if boiled then deep-fried, it basically turns into Pork Rinds.
Sadly, this is one arena in which I have to plead personal inability to truly engage with the cultural divide: I am SUPER bad about being able to eat food with chewy fat. It’s basically the only food I will legitimately spit out. I may not LIKE oysters or shellfish, but I’ll choke them DOWN. I literally cannot MAKE myself swallow if I can’t chew the fat in a piece of meat. Just last month, we went to a Japanese restaurant for Mother’s Day, and tried Beef Short Rib Tataki, at my suggestion. Tataki is a Japanese cooking style that is best explained as “the step above raw”: a protein seared enough for the very edges to set, but the center to be raw. It’s a popular way to serve Tuna in Japan, and some American restaurants. And despite it looking delicious, and yes, BEING delicious, I couldn’t eat it. I put it in my mouth, I chewed it, and then I started gagging. I did it TWICE, I was so dedicated to trying to do this. But, alas, for now it eludes me.
I was too busy trying to hide my shame to get a picture of how the tataki looked, but this is a basically correct.
Which is a fun set-up for the next bit, because while Nate LOVES fat and gristle, and was supportively mocking during my failures above (in that he commended my efforts, and understood the attempt I was making, while also labeling me a “little bitch” for being unable to succeed.) I in turn got to be mocking when he tried the peppercorn. Myself, my mother, and Nathan all ate our own peppercorn, and my reaction was MUCH more contained than theirs: I found myself unable to stop laughing for the span of 2 minutes, as I felt the numbing, vibratory effect on my tongue. The others flipped out, and spat it out within 20 seconds or so. It’s a hugely strange effect to try to explain: at first, there’s nothing. The peppercorn tastes a little like pine-needles. Then, as you’re rubbing your tongue trying to figure it out, you realize it tastes lemony. Except, then your brain realizes, no, that’s not lemon flavor, it’s…what the hell IS that? It’s a little like the cold feeling of electricity you’d get when you touched your tongue to a 9-volt battery, a little like the top layer of your tongue is being burned off by MOSTLY painless acid. It…shocks, in a very provocative way. And this isn’t me fondly remembering the experience: I grabbed another one just now to make sure I was getting the details on point.
And it’s that cold-numbing spiciness that makes the spice so appealing to Sichuan cooking. Which, since both my family members spat it out, is why I removed MOST of it from the following recipe. But not all. As we’re about to see.
A right Oily little bastard.
Now, as a Sichaun dish, Dan Dan noodles are normally fairly spicy, including both Szechuan peppercorns, and other flavorings. Given the…ahem, notoriously reduced Caucasian affection for spiciness, the recipe I’m using, from Cook’s Country has us make the dish, and then add a Szechuan Chili Oil to the finished product to set our own level of spiciness. And this oil is Both some pretty serious business, and the longest part of the recipe. By which I mean “the part the takes the most time”, not “the part that takes the most details.” It’s actually super simple: gather a bunch of spicy or spicy-adjacent ingredients, drop them in some hot oil, and let the pot steep for an hour. Boom, chili-infused oil.
The initial encounter between oil and elements will be somewhat fraught.
The ingredients themselves are pretty fun. Smoked Paprika is there, for a lot of what I think of as “darkness” to the oil (seriously, cooked smoked paprika has this weird flavor of “I taste like we somehow burned this in a GOOD way”), then there’s garlic, red pepper flakes, Sichuan peppercorns, some smashed ginger and…A cinnamon stick? Okay, weird, but whatever. Toss it in, let it steep, strain it, and stir in some sesame oil before serving.
This stuff looks a little like motor oil, or like something used in curses.
Boom, that’s the longest part out of the way. The rest of this will take like, 20 minutes if you’ve got a kitchen where you can multi-task, and a little longer if you can’t.
Let’s Get Dan to Business
Now, obviously, this is a noodle dish, so you’re going to need noodles. We’re using spaghetti, but egg noodles would also be appropriate. Indeed, they’d be more accurate, but Cook’s Country said spaghetti, and didn’t explain why, so I assume there’s some distinction between the type of egg noodles you get in Sichuan and the kind you get in an American super-market. And if I’m wrong, well, I blame the schools.
So start some water boiling to cook your pasta, and while it’s warming up, prep your three “sauces”. Yeah, this recipe technically has three different sauces involved in it. (actually, four, since you made the Sichuan sauce earlier) Despite this, it’s not going to be very wet; which is actually kind of weird, because in Sichuan, it’s actually a rather soupy dish. The First sauce is for the pork: it’s a mixture of sherry, soy sauce, and hoisin. Just whisk the three together to get a salty-sweet liquid that will reduce into a glaze as the pork cooks.
Sticky Pig Balls, anyone?
In fact, get a pan hot and start the pork cooking while you prep the second sauce. The SECOND sauce is for the overall dish, and it’s kind of weird, from an American understanding of Chinese food, because it uses a healthy amount of Tahini. We talked about Tahini, the middle-eastern/Mediterranean sesame paste, back with our Cauliflower Gyros. It’s definitely subbing in here for Chinese sesame paste, which is darker and more toasted, but that’s okay: to make a similar condiment, you just need to add toasted sesame oil to the tahini, and we add sesame oil to the dish twice in this recipe: it’s in the chili oil, of course, AND we’ll toss our cooked pasta in it to flavor it and keep it from sticking if it finishes before everything else does.
With the tahini, you’ll mix chili-garlic sauce, rice vinegar, hot water, sugar, salt, and some more hoisin and soy sauce. The result will not be the handsomest thing you’ve ever made.
Can we go back to the curse oil?
But it will taste nice. The third sauce is the quickest, and you actually have to wait for the pork to be done before you tackle it, because it has to be heated. You can mince up some garlic and slice some scallions while you wait for the cooked pork tossed in the glaze to reduce, since they’ll be important in the final sauce, and service. And if it’s done, you can take out your pasta, drain it, and toss it in the sesame oil while you get the last sauce ready. This one is just blooming a couple ingredients in oil: your minced garlic, the whites of the scallions you cut, a little bit more red pepper flake, and, if desired, some ground Szechuan peppercorn.
I literally just realized this looks a little like I tried to make the Americas out of the sizzling scallions.
Heat it for just about 2 minutes, until it smells fragrant, and now you literally just toss everything together in a large bowl. The glazed pork, pasta, tahini sauce, and warmed oil. Toss it up, sprinkle with the scallion greens and maybe some more ground Szechuan peppercorns, and serve, spooning over chili oil to taste.
The dish dwells part in shadow, part in light. Seeking balance, the unity of opposites.
I quite liked the finished product. It wasn’t immediately mesmerizing, as I had been led to believe by the many descriptions of Dan Dan noodles I’d heard in my earlier searching. (Seriously, If you find a package of Dunkaroos with JO written on it in Sharpee, please email me, or deliver it to me in person.)But it was tasty. I had the left-overs several times over the next week as lunch, and I was never disappointed. It’s a little sweet, a warm, and delicious, and I hope you give it a try.
THURSDAY: JON WILL HOPEFULLY REVIEW A SHORT SERIES ON MANY SOURCES, ASSUMING HE CAN WATCH ALL OF IT IN THE NEXT FEW DAYS
MONDAY: A STRANGE LITTLE SALAD TO BRING SOME INTRIGUE TO POTLUCKS, PINICS, AND OTHER PARTIES THIS SUMMER.
Who's ready for a
Dan Dan Noodles With Szechuan Chili Oil
Szechuan Chili Oil
½ cup peanut or vegetable oil
2 tbsp red pepper flakes
1 ½” piece of ginger, smashed
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon Szechuan peppercorns
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 tsp Smoked Paprika
2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
Dan Dan Noodles
1 pound spaghetti
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
½ pound of pork
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp hoisin sauce
1 tbsp dry sherry
1 cup hot water
¼ cup tahini
2 tbsps rice vinegar
1 tbsp Asian chili-garlic sauce
2 tsps sugar
3 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp hoisin sauce
¼ cup vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 scallions, thinly sliced, green and white parts separated
1 tsp red pepper flakes
¼ tsp ground Szechuan peppercorns
1. Prepare the Szechuan Chili Oil: in a small saucepan, heat the oil to 350 degrees. Remove from the heat, and add remaining ingredients. Let steep off heat for 1 hour, then pour oil through a strainer into an airtight container, removing the solids. Store for 3 month in the fridge, or 3 weeks at room temp.
2. In a large pot, bring a quart of water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and salt, and cook to package directions. Drain, move noodles to large bowl or pot, and toss with sesame oil as you prepare remaining ingredients.
3. In a large skillet, add the ground pork and cook for 4-5 minutes, until no longer pink. Add sherry, soy sauce, and hoisin, and stir/toss to coat, cooking until liquid is removed, roughly another 4-5 minutes. While pork is cooking, stir together all ingredients for sesame sauce in another bowl, and set aside.
4. When pork is finished, move to the same pot/bowl as the pasta, wipe the skillet, and add sizzling sauce ingredients (except for scallion greens), and cook over medium heat for roughly 2 minutes.
5. Toss Sesame Sauce, Sizzling Sauce, Pasta, and pork together in large pot or bowl. Top with green scallion parts, and additional ground Szechuan peppercorns if desired, and spoon over chili oil to taste. Serve warm.