We recently returned from a prolonged trek back home to California. My family has been living in the same house for over two decades. While the Bay Area, city, neighborhood, and even my childhood home have undergone major and minor changes, one of the things that remains constant is an old tree in the backyard that has stayed steadfast and sturdy.
We have to trim the branches of this tree at least once every year. This trimming tends to fall during the holidays and usually is a family affair. My dad and I take turns scaling the tree and sawing/snipping at the branches. My mom and siblings drag the long branches out to the street, organizing them into large piles for collection. At the end, we squint skyward at the thinned-out tree and newly exposed sun.
The part that fascinates and inspires me about this particular tree is its growth pattern. If you look carefully at the main branches, they resemble bulbous, gnarled knobs surrounded by circumferential new shoots. Every year when we trim off the small branches, the tree can no longer send off a branch from the same location yet, every year, the tree finds a different path and way to survive. Truly a testament of perseverance and spirit of survival.
Of course every family gathering is not complete without a wide array of food. It is not uncommon for my parents to pick me up from the airport and immediately take me out to eat at a restaurant before even thinking about going home to drop off luggage. Even when I am away, our text conversations and emails are always peppered with a smorgasbord of food pictures. Hundreds of miles apart, food connects us.
When it comes to Chinese recipes, my mom is my go-to person for questions (although apparently my dad sometimes steals her culinary tips and tricks and tries to pass them off as his own when he talks to my sister). One night I stumbled upon a recipe by Kenji Lopez-Alt for Dan Dan Noodles. I had seen the dish on many menus but could not recall ever having ordered it. Wondering where the recipe and name originated, I reached out to my mom.
The dish itself came from Sichuan cuisine, renowned for its strong flavors and the numbing spice of Sichuan peppercorns in particular. While it is hard to say what the authentic recipe is as it has gone through many iterations, the name comes from how it was carried and sold, via “bian dan” (扁担) or carrying pole.
The sellers carried briquettes and a pot with boiling water on one end and the rest of the ingredients and noodle on the other. They wandered the streets yelling, “好吃的担担面!” or “Delicious dan dan noodles.” It is a flavorful and warming recipe that is perfect for a chilly day.
Dan Dan Mian (担担面)
- Thick Noodles (fresher noodles tend to give you much better texture)
- *Ground pork (at least 20% fat) 1/2 lb
- Garlic 3 cloves, minced
- Ginger 1 in segment, minced
- Onion 1 medium, diced
- Sichuan peppercorns 2 tsp, ground
- Preserved mustard root (Zhai Cai) 4 T, chopped
- Soy sauce 1 T (per serving)
- Black vinegar 1 T (per serving)
- Chili oil 2 T (per serving)
- Chinese greens/bok choy blanched
Start by heating a pan/wok on high heat. Add 1 T of cooking oil and coat the pan. Add the ground pork and sichuan peppercorns and cook until lightly browned. Add garlic, ginger, onion, and zhai cai. Cook in pan for another minute or so until the garlic, ginger, and onions release their aroma. Set aside mixture in a separate bowl. In the meantime, boil a pot of water for noodles. Cook noodles until al-dente. Reserve some of the water used to cook the noodles. In each individual serving bowl, add 1 T soy sauce, 1 T black vinegar, 2 T chili oil and serving of noodles. Add pork mixture and top with diced scallions and blanched greens. Add 1/2 cup of hot noodle water and mix well to serve.
There is no wrong way to garnish this dish. Other variations include adding a peanut/sesame paste to the base sauce, adding roasted peanuts, adding bean sprouts, etc. Do your own take.
*If you don’t eat/like pork, it is easy to substitute another ground meat or even diced Shitake mushroom for a vegetarian option