Meatless Mondays is a great idea but I don’t do it. I’m a mostly meatless lunch person. On the days when my husband is at work, I often make myself a vegetarian mid-day snack. A fried egg with leftover rice and some Viet pickles is among my personal favorites. So is banh mi with tofu or egg. This week while rummaging through the hinterlands of my pantry (a deep hallway closet), I found a five-pound box of Quon Yick dried Chinese noodles.
I went to the factory years ago to discuss dumpling wrappers with the owner because the company is one of the oldest of its kind in the Los Angeles area. Quon Yick makes great noodles and dumpling wrappers and used to be Chinatown, Los Angeles. The kind owner, Henry Leong, gifted my friends and me about eight (8) boxes of dried noodles and a bunch of fresh noodles and dumpling skins too. The fresh stuff is gone(!), but the dried noodles remain. I’d forgotten about them and suddenly remembered how great they are. I needed to start using the noodles.
Then I found a jar of Chinese sesame paste in the back of the fridge and in the fridge door was a spare package of umami-laden ya chai Sichuan preserved vegetable. Add to that homemade chile oil (see Asian Dumplings or Asian Tofu for the recipe) that I keep on hand, I had the foundation for dan dan noodles, a spicy rich noodle dish from Sichuan, China.
If you’ve had Asian noodles dressed with spicy peanut sauce, dan dan noodles is its edgy cousin. It’s earthy, remarkably good and can be simply sauced or sauced and topped with a well-seasoned stir-fried ground meat mixture. I like the latter version. As an experiment, I traded the ground beef for thawed, crumbled tofu — the fake meat mixture I came up for the vegetarian mapo tofu recipe. It worked beautifully.
The sauce and topping can be made and refrigerated for days; just return them to room temperature or refresh them in the microwave oven. The sauce thickens and hardens a bit during chilling. Come eating time, it’s a matter of boiling the noodles and combining everything. If you want to pre-cook all the noodles, reheat them with a couple splashes of water in a pot, then stir in the dressing. Warm noodles take on the sauce much better than cold or room temperature noodles.
Pick a fresh Chinese noodle about the width of a bean sprout. The dried Quon Yick noodles I used resemble thin spaghetti, not quite capellini; they doubled in size and weight through cooking. In a pinch, substitute spaghetti or linguine. Select an eggless Chinese noodle if you'd like to go vegan.
If you want to stick to the meat, use ground beef, pork, or chicken thigh in place of the mushroom and tofu. Season the meat in the pan with the soy sauce while you're cooking it.
Vegetarian Dan Dan Noodles
Yields: 4 to 6 as a snack or starter, 2 to 3 as a main course
- 2 dried shiitake mushroom
- 4 ounces crumbled, thawed extra-firm tofu (see vegetarian mapo tofu for guidance)
- 1 rounded teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste, or 1 1/2 tablespoons tahini and 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons chile oil, with chile flakes preferred
- 1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
- 3 or 4 dried chiles, such as Arbol, snipped lengthwise, seed shaken out
- 2 tablespoons Sichuan preserved ya cai vegetable or finely chopped dill pickle
- 1 pound (450 g) fresh Chinese noodles or 10 ounces (300 g) dried Chinese noodles
- 1 green onion, green parts only, cut into thin rings, optional
- Soak the mushroom in water to rehydrate. Stem and then finely chop. Put into a small bowl and add the crumbled tofu. Season with 2 teaspoons regular soy sauce and 1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce. Set aside.
- In a medium skillet or wok over medium heat, toast the Sichuan peppercorns until fragrant and slightly smoking. Set aside to cool for a minute, then pound to a coarse texture with a mortar and pestle (or use a spice grinder).
- For the sauce, in a bowl, combine half of the Sichuan peppercorn with the 1 tablespoon of regular soy, 1 tablespoon dark soy, sesame paste, and chile oil. If needed, season with extra soy sauce (either kind) and pinches of salt to create an almost uncomfortably salty flavor; the noodles will not be pre-salted and slightly wet so they'll dilute the sauce a bit. Divide among individual bowls or put into one communal bowl. Set aside.
- For the tofu topping, heat oil in a wok or skillet over medium heat. Add the chile and remaining ground Sichuan peppercorn and stir-fry until fragrant, 15 seconds. Add the mushroom and tofu mixture, and preserved vegetable (or pickle). Cook until warmed through and sizzling, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
- Cook the noodles in a large pot of unsalted water according to the package instructions. Drain, flush with water to remove excess starch. While the noodles are hot, add them to the bowls (or bowl). Stir to coat, if you like. Top with stir-fried mixture, green onion, and serve. Make sure to mix things up before eating.