When you live in the bay area, there is a plethora of good Asian food to be had. When I get cravings for a noodle dish, it is either Beef Noodle Soup or Dan Dan Mein. I will have to save the discussion on Beef Noodle Soup for another post because this one is all about Dan Dan Mein.
The interesting thing about this dish is that all cooks make it a little differently. There is the Szechuan style and the Taiwanese style. Common ingredients include chili oil, sesame oil, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, etc. If you’re familiar with Asian cooking, this is no surprise to you. However, I’ve found that altering the proportions of each ingredient results in wildly different dishes. Here are a few examples:
1. Potsticker King: Yelp categorizes this place at Chinese/Taiwanese, but I found their Dan Dan Mein to be much more of a Szechuan style of noodle dish. It was heavily soaked in chili oil and had a consistency that reminded me of Hot and Sour Soup. The noodles were nice and thick and the dish was tossed with ground pork and chopped bamboo shoots, so that was decently good. The bad part was just that it wasn’t what I was expecting or wanting to eat. (The photo below is what the dish looked like, but is not actually from Potsticker King.)
2. Queen House: Now as a disclaimer, I LOVE Queen House’s Beef Noodle Soup. But as I said, that’s for another time. When I ordered their Dan Dan Mein, I found it to be very similar to the one above, except that they put in a million water chestnuts instead of the bamboo shoots. It was still too oily feeling though. (The photo below is what the dish looked like, but is not actually from Queen House.)
3. A&J Restaurant: Enter two new ingredients. Peanut and sesame, thanks for joining the party. I think a good Dan Dan Mein needs these flavors. The sauce becomes slightly more like a paste instead of watery and it sticks well to the noodles. However, the version that A&J makes is just a little, well, boring. There’s no heat to it, the noodles are thin and just okay, and I was just under impressed. (The photo below was submitted by a Yelp reviewer.)
4. Mama Chef: I found this version to be similar to A&J’s with one exception. They added ground black pepper. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I was thinking it needed more heat, but I guess it’s something. I didn’t include a photo of this one. Just look at the Dan Dan Mein from A&J and picture it with tiny black specks.
So as you see, my quest to find the best tasting Dan Dan Mein was foiled by the fact that everyone makes it a little bit differently AND my tastes for this dish are rather specific. But then I thought, Why don’t I just make it myself? DUH. So I found two recipes to try. Spoiler alert: Don’t bother with the first one, but the second one is absolutely stellar. I recommend it.
Lauren’s Dan Dan Mein Attempt #1: The Sesame Edition
3 tablespoons sesame paste or peanut butter
1 1/2 tablespoons Asian sesame oil
3 tablespoons black rice vinegar
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 – 1 1/2 teaspoons roasted Szechuan peppercorn (optional, to taste)
3 teaspoons hot chili oil (optional, to taste)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 cup chicken broth
Mix all the ingredients together well. Toss with Chinese noodles. Garnish with sesame seeds of course. Overall, I thought this one was okay. It was strong in sesame flavor, but I wanted something with more peanut taste. So…I tried again.
Lauren’s Dan Dan Mein Attempt #2: The Peanut Edition
1/4 cup peanut oil
1/2 cup raw peanuts
1 small jalapeño, minced
1 small garlic clove, halved
One 1/4-inch slice of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Sriracha chili sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
Fry the peanuts in the peanut oil for about 8 minutes or until nicely browned. Mince in a food processor. Process all other ingredients until smooth. I used ½ teaspoon ground ginger since I didn’t have fresh. Toss the sauce with Chinese noodles. Serve with ground pork, garnish with cucumber matchsticks. The cucumber worked really well with this dish because it gave textural contrast. The chili sauce and jalapeno gave just the right amount of kick. And the peanut taste was spot on. Adam really liked this dish, so I’ll probably make it again. The best part is, especially if you cook with similar ingredients often, you’ll have everything on hand already and it costs $0. Whoo!