Create savory depth
Find substitutes for two hard-to-find ingredients
Add contrast with fresh vegetables
Have you ever “discovered” something new only to find that it's everywhere you turn? That was my experience with the meaty Chinese noodle dish zha jiang mian (“ja jang mee-AN”), and I've never been so glad to find a new favorite that I can get in most any Chinese restaurant. This dish has many aliases—fried sauce noodles, Beijing meat sauce, and Old Beijing noodles, to name a few. But what's even better is that it can be a good dish to make at home: simple, quick, and flavor-packed.
It starts with a sauce that simmers for just 20 minutes and calls for only ½ pound of ground meat. The savory secret? Two fermented products: sweet bean sauce (tián miàn jiàng) and ground bean sauce (huáng jiàng).Though most food historians no longer believe that Marco Polo was the first to introduce pasta to Italy after his travels to China in the 13th century, perhaps he was the first to introduce zha jiang mian; the rich, savory meat sauce in the dish bears an uncanny resemblance to Italian ragu.
Most recipes begin by sautéing ground pork, minced mushrooms, garlic, ginger, and scallions. The bean sauces go into the pot next, along with some water. The sauce simmers until it develops a thick consistency and a mahogany color and the flavors meld. It's then spooned over a mound of chewy lo mein noodles and topped with nests of colorful slivered raw vegetables. As the dish is stirred, the vegetables wilt from the heat but retain a refreshing crispness that's an ideal foil for the deep, dark sauce.
Developing a similar recipe for home cooks without access to Asian markets would require finding substitutes for the sweet bean and ground bean sauces. Thick, dark sweet bean sauce has a salty-sweet-umami flavor reminiscent of hoisin, but it's saltier, with an underlying bitter smokiness. It reminded me of molasses, which inspired my first substitution attempt: hoisin and molasses in a 3:1 ratio. The flavor was close but lacked the salty depth of the original. Adding soy sauce brought it closer.
Ground bean sauce packs a savory-salty punch. Red miso paste, another long-fermented product, was a solid swap once I added a little more soy sauce.
When I used both substitutes, the flavors of the sauce were spot-on, but the dish was far too salty. Not wanting to upset the savory-salty-sweet balance by adjusting the ingredients, I tried a different approach: What if I simply used less sauce? It worked. The flavors were already so concentrated that reducing the quantity produced a balanced dish.
A few final tweaks: Mixing a baking soda solution into the ground pork kept the meat tender and moist. As for the vegetables, three provided variety and kept knife work to a minimum: Cucumber matchsticks and bean sprouts, along with scallion greens, provided freshness and crunch.
Keys to Success
Create savory depthUmami-rich pantry ingredients such as soy sauce, miso paste, and hoisin sauce, along with meaty shiitake mushrooms and a small amount of pork give the sauce lots of savoriness.
Find substitutes for two hard-to-find ingredientsHoisin, molasses, and soy sauce take the place of sweet bean sauce, and red miso and soy sauce stand in for ground bean sauce.
Add contrast with fresh vegetablesCucumber matchsticks, thinly sliced scallion greens, and bean sprouts are easy to prep; add crisp, fresh contrast to the rich and savory sauce; and turn this into a one-dish weeknight meal.