Behind the Recipes

Why—and How—to Make Dan Dan Mian

Awash in palate-jolting chili sauce and heaped with crispy bits of pork, these noodles are soul-warming street food in Sichuan. They can—and should—be in your kitchen, too.

Published Aug. 5, 2020.

If you love noodles and Sichuan food, you’re probably well versed in dan dan mian and all its chewy, spicy, electric glory. The dish, named for the pole that vendors use to tote ingredients, is iconic street food within the province, where diners savor even the act of mixing together their own portion—a custom known as “ban.” The ritual starts with four color-blocked elements neatly composed in a bowl: a pool of vivid red chili sauce, a mound of ivory wheat noodles, crispy browned bits of seasoned ground pork, and lengths of jade-green baby bok choy. Then, with the nudge of your chopsticks, all that color, heat, and savory tang washes over the noodles—and then your palate. Just as the numbing sensation and richness builds and nearly overwhelms your tastebuds, a juicy, cooling piece of bok choy swoops in and resets your system for the next bite. If there’s a more dynamic noodle‑eating experience out there, I don’t know it.

And yet, I’d rarely made dan dan mian until recently. The hang-up wasn’t about the cooking; even though there are four components, each one is fast and simple to prepare. It was about sourcing the handful of very particular ingredients that make dan dan mian so complex. Without a robust Sichuan pantry, I was missing many of them—and my impression had always been that this is not a dish where I could just hack it with substitutions and expect to get it right.

But when I ran a diagnostic breakdown of the dish, sussing out where I could and couldn’t compromise, I learned that my assumption was only partially true. Yes, there were a few must-haves to seek out, but there was also a good bit of ingredient flexibility that helped bring dan dan mian within my grasp. Zeroing in so deeply also prompted me to polish up a few steps along the way so that the flavors and textures of the dish really popped. Now I knock out a version whenever I want, and you should, too. Because the only thing more satisfying than tucking into a bowl yourself will be hearing your friends and family clamor for seconds.

Long, Springy Noodles

The noodles should soak up the sauce, capture the crumbly bits of pork, and deliver springy chew. Fresh, thin, egg-free Chinese wheat noodles are the standard for dan dan mian, but fresh lo mein and ramen check all those boxes, too. Even dried lo mein works, as long as you use half as much. Whichever kind you use, be sure to give the noodles a thorough rinse after cooking them to remove their sticky surface starch. Otherwise, they’ll fuse into a doughy mass.

Spicy, Deeply Fragrant Chili Sauce

Sichuan chili oil is the base of the sauce that reddens, lubricates, and lights up the noodles with má (“numbing”) là (“spicy”) flavor. Making your own usually involves heating spices and sometimes aromatics in neutral oil and letting the mixture sit for several days to draw out maximum flavor. But I found that you can make a good version by gently heating Sichuan chili powder (you can substitute gochugaru, which is a tad milder), ground Sichuan peppercorns (their numbing sensation is critical here), and cinnamon in oil for just 10 minutes.

Turning that oil into a deeply savory sauce is simply a matter of whisking in a handful of bottled condiments and pastes. Soy sauce is the easy one, and balsamic vinegar can mimic the fruity tang of Chinese black vinegar. Traditionally, it’s a combination of Chinese sweet wheat and sesame pastes that adds earthy, faintly sweet depth and thickens the mixture, but hoisin and tahini make admirable stand-ins. Don’t worry if the oil separates and pools as the sauce sits; it’s normal—and quite pretty.

Crispy, Savory Pork Topping

Tender, juicy meat is not the goal here. What you want is a crispy, umami-rich seasoning that clings to the noodles. To get it really fine-textured and brown, I smear the ground pork into a thin layer across the wok with a rubber spatula, jab at it with the tool’s edge to break it up into bits, and sear it hard—really hard. The end result is fine bits of pork with crispy edges.

Then I stir in minced garlic and grated ginger, followed by a big scoop of the Sichuan pickle called ya cai. Made by fermenting the stalks of a Chinese mustard plant, it adds tangy, complex, subtly spicy funk. There’s nothing quite like it (even in Sichuan, where fermented foods are a particular speciality), and since it’s shelf-stable, you may as well stock up on it for future dan dan mian. (For more information, see “Bring On the [Preserved Vegetable] Funk”).

Plump, Juicy Bok Choy

Blanching baby bok choy brightens its color and slightly softens its texture, but that softening does more than tenderize. It frees water from the cell walls, giving the vegetable its juicy, palate-cleansing effect. To create bite‑size pieces that soften at the same rate, I trim the base of each bulb, which causes the larger outer leaves to separate, and then halve the bulb lengthwise. The pieces need only a minute-long dunk in the water before they’re crisp-tender (save the water to boil the noodles!), and there’s no need to fuss with shocking in an ice bath, since they will cool quickly once transferred to a plate.

We tried more than half a dozen types of fresh and dried noodles in our dan dan mian, and preferred thin fresh Chinese wheat noodles (foreground) for their springy chew.

Build The Bowl

Proper dan dan mian starts with carefully composing the four elements (chili sauce, noodles, pork topping, and blanched bok choy) in the bowl. Doing so allows diners to enjoy the visual contrast of each plated portion as well as the act of tossing everything together—a Sichuan custom known as “ban.” Above is a breakdown of how to layer everything in the bowl.

Dan Dan Mian (Sichuan Noodles with Chili Sauce and Pork)

Awash in palate-jolting chili sauce and heaped with crispy bits of pork, these noodles are soul-warming street food in Sichuan. They can—and should—be in your kitchen, too.
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