Field Notes

Master Class: Dan Dan Noodles

Previously we gushed over chili oil, the condiment that appears on practically every table all over China. This stuff can enhance pretty much everything it touches--our favorite applications include dousing it over grilled fish, using it as a dunk tank for dumplings, and adding it to a bowl of fried rice--but it’s particularly well-suited to Szechuan cuisine.

The Szechuan province of China knows from good chilies. The claim to fame of the region’s cuisine is the Szechuan peppercorn, known for inspiring ma la, which translates to “numbing” and “spicy.” Indeed, the sensation of this spice is akin to a type of very mild local anesthesia, causing a tingling in the tongue. Paired with the toasty heat of chili oil, it’s a chili-lover’s dream. And no dish does a better job of showcasing these complementary flavors than dan dan noodles.

So we turned to Fuchsia Dunlop, the authority on Chinese home cooking, and sure enough found a relatively simple recipe for dan dan noodles, featuring the one-two punch of chili oil and Szechuan peppercorns, in her cookbook Every Grain of Rice. With just a little bit of tweaking, it’s become a dish that we’ll come back to again and again.

Dan Dan Noodles

Serves 2

  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • ½ teaspoon whole Szechuan peppercorns, crushed with the back of a knife
  • 1 ounce ya cai (see note)
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • ¼ pound ground beef
  • 7 ounces dry Chinese noodles
  • Scallions, sliced, for garnish

For the dressing:

  • ¼ teaspoon ground Szechuan pepper
  • 2 tablespoons tahini
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons chili oil (with sediment)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

In a skillet over medium heat, add the oil. Add the peppercorns and ya cai and stir until fragrant (about 1 minute). Add the soy sauce and the beef and cook, stirring frequently and using the back of your spoon to break up the meat, until it’s cooked through. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

When the water is boiling, add the noodles and cook until al dente. Drain and place in a large bowl. Add the reserved beef mixture to the bowl.

In a small bowl, whisk together the sauce ingredients. Add the sauce to the noodles and toss to coat; season with salt or additional chili oil as desired. Top with scallions and serve.

Note: Ya cai are fermented mustard greens, typically found near the refrigerated fresh noodles and produce in Asian markets. If you can’t find them, this dish will still be delicious--but seek them out if you can.