There seems to be a multitude of recipes for this dish around and they all claim to be the real thing, so inevitably this will be a series of compromises. Dan Dan Mian is a Sichuan (Szechuan) dish, spicy with chilli and packed with flavour.
One ingredient it contains is Sichuan preserved vegetables, most recipes call for a variety called ya cai, which is preserved mustard greens but others use zha cai which is a different thing altogether, being bulbous, knobbly-looking stems of the mustard green plant. Anyway, I decided to got to the local Chinese supermarket and see what I could find. As expected, there were loads of different versions there, so I asked one of the assistants. She pointed at the various sachets and basically said “They will all do, but I like this one for Dan Dan Mian, anyway, you can try them all and see what you like best“. So, I got one sort and used that. Next time, I’ll try another one. Looking at the packet, I am not sure what I bought was ya cai, but it came from Sichuan, smelt good and was pretty tasty, so I am happy.
Anyway, the recipe. It is mostly from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain Of Rice with a bit of assistance from a great website called The Woks Of Life. This is an absolutely brilliant website which contains loads of information and recipes and is nicely written and illustrated as well.
So, no claims to originality, but this is what I did.
3 teaspoons groundnut oil
250g minced pork
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
3 dried red chillies, halved and seeds removed
1/2 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 sachet of preserved vegetables, chopped up into small pieces
2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste (I used tahini, because I forgot to look for the real thing when I was in the supermarket)
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper
3 tablespoons of chilli oil, including some of the sediment in the jar
fresh or dried medium noodles (I used fresh ones)
shredded pak choi (you could use another fresh Chinese green vegetable like choi sum)
The ingredients are in three sections because the dish has three components; the meat topping, the noodles and a sauce that goes in the bottom of the bowl.
First make the sauce with the sesame paste and other things in that section. All you do is mix all the ingredients together and leave it until required. If it looks too thick, thin it down with some hot water.
Next, make the meat mixture.
Heat up the oil in the wok and fry the Sichuan peppercorns and dried chillies until aromatic. Then fry the minced pork until browned. Add the soy sauce and the preserved vegetables. Cook until all the liquid is evaporated. Set aside.
While you are cooking the meat, cook the noodles in boiling water and drain. Do not throw the water away, because next you have to blanch the pak choi in the same water.
To serve, put some of the sauce into the bottom of the each bowl, followed by the noodles and pak choi. Add the pork and vegetable mixture on top.
You could garnish with some chopped spring onion green parts if you like.
When you eat it, first mix everything together so the sauce coats the noodles.
This all sounds like a fair bit of work, but really it is pretty straightforward. Preparation is everything here. Get everything ready before you start.
I will say that this is a seriously tasty dish and I will definitely be making it again. Next time I’ll use the proper Chinese sesame paste and try a different preserved vegetable.