Dan dan noodles are traditionally made with pork or beef mince and drenched in the incredibly spicy Sichaun chilli oil. This vegetarian version uses ground tofu and shitake mushroom in place of the meat. The version I actually make is a little ‘dumbed down’, because I leave out the Sichuan chilli oil. My one and only attempt to make Sichuan chilli oil was a total failure. I was unable to track down the milder Sichuan or Korean chilli flakes, so I used ordinary chilli flakes and my chilli oil was so excruciatingly hot, it was inedible, which kind of turned me off the whole making-my-own-chilli-oil-at-home enterprise, at least for a while. I’ve given the quantities for the Sichuan chilli if you want to try for the full authentic flavour. If you want to try making your own Sichuan chilli oil, there’s an easy to follow recipe from Leite’s Culinaria here.
There are quite a few exotic ingredients in dan dan noodles, all the them can be substituted for more everyday ingredients but it is really worth trying to track down the Sichuan preserved ya cai vegetable. This pickle really gives the dan dan noodle topping its very distinctive flavour. It comes in small foil packets about the size of a mobile phone. I was searching for this pickle for ages in my local Chinese grocery; finally, in amongst the packets of pickled vegetables, I grabbed a packet of pickles made in Sichuan and thought I’d just buy them instead, before realising that the packet I had grabbed was actually the elusive ya cai vegetable. In fact, my local Chinese grocery store had two brands of ya cai vegetable – SUIMIYACAI and YIBINYACAI – so I bought a couple of packets of both and bought them home. As you can see, I’m using the YIBINYACAI now. Yibin is a province in Sichuan which is famous for its pickles.
For the ground meat effect in the topping, I’ve used a combination of frozen then defrosted tofu and shitake mushrooms. If you’ve never used frozen tofu, it’s really good for creating a ground meat effect, without going into those weird meat substitutes like TVP. I’ve only eaten TVP a couple of times but both times I found it incredibly indigestible. To freeze tofu, you just cut it into small blocks, pat it dry and freeze it in an airtight container. (I should warn you: when the frozen tofu turns a incredibly unappetizing yellow color, don’t freak out, it reverts to a less toxic looking color when defrosted). When you’re ready to use the tofu, cut it into cubes and pour boiling water over it and let it sit for 15 minutes. Drain and crumble into pieces before stir frying it.
All this talk of tracking down exotic ingredients and freezing tofu probably makes these noodles sound like a lot of toil and trouble, but they’re really not. Once you make the ingredients a part of your pantry, they are in fact incredibly easy to make, a good quick store cupboard meal, or super easy Sunday supper.
Vegetarian dan dan noodles
For the topping
- 2 small shitake mushrooms
- 125 grams of frozen tofu, defrosted
- ½ teaspoon of ground roasted Sichuan pepper
- 2 teaspoons of tamari
- ½ teaspoon dark soy sauce
- 3 dried Sichuan chillies, snipped in half with the seeds taken out, or some chilli flakes to taste
- 25 grams (about 1½ tablespoons of preserved Sichuan ya cai vegetable) OR one very finely chopped dill pickle
- 1 green onion, cut into fine rings (optional)
- 1½ tablespoons of oil
For the sauce
- ¼ teaspoon of ground roasted Sichuan pepper
- 2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste or you can substitute this with peanut butter or regular tahini
- 3 tablespoons tamari (light soy sauce)
- 2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
- 1–2 teaspoons of chilli paste, OR 2–4 tablespoons of Sichuan chilli oil (according to taste)
- Salt, to taste
200 grams of dried Chinese wheat noodles (I use udon noodles) or 300 grams of fresh noodles.
- Mix all the ingredients for the sauce together and set aside. If you are using chilli paste instead of chilli oil, you may find your sauce is a bit thick, so I generally add some extra oil (I like macadamia oil) and a bit extra soy. I’ve also add some mirin at times, which seems to work too. This sauce should be fairly intense and salty – it will be used to coat unsalted noodles, so the flavour will be dispersed.
- Soak shitake mushrooms in hot water for 30 minutes. Cut off and discard stalk and chop cap finely.
- Cut tofu into 1½ cm cubes, pour boiling water over it and let sit for 15 minutes. Drain, squeeze dry with your hands and grind it into a rough mince.
- Combine tofu and mushroom add ½ teaspoon of dark soy sauce and 2 teaspoons of tamari and mix through.
- For the topping, heat oil in a wok or skillet over a medium heat. Add chilli and half a teaspoon of Sichuan pepper fry until fragrant. Then add tofu and mushroom mixture, ya cai vegetable, and stir fry until it sizzles and starts to brown (about 2 minutes). Remove from heat and set aside.
- Cook noodles according to package instructions. Drain, rinse with water and drain again. Add noodles to a large bowl and add sauce, mix through until the noodles are well coated. Transfer to two bowls, add topping, garnish with green onion if desired and serve immediately.