Reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memory of Eating in China, had me wanting to move to Chengdu and learn Mandarin. I even added a book on learning Chinese to my wish list, really! Unfortunately, at the moment this particular fantasy is not too practical. So I did the next best thing: I cooked up some Dan Dan Noodles.
In addition to relating her adventures as the first westerner to study at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, Ms. Dunlop also thoughtfully provides a few recipes (for more, see her two wonderful cookbooks). In particular I was intrigued by the tale of Xie Laoban’s Dan Dan Noodles. Mr. Xie owned a noodle shop near Sichuan University in Chengdu where Ms. Dunlop was studying. She and her fellow students agreed that his were the best Dan Dan Noodles to be had in all of Chengdu. She attempted to wheedle the recipe out of Mr. Xie. Over the course of several years he would drop little hints of ingredients or techniques, but he never truly revealed all the secrets. Slowly the puzzle pieces fit into place and Ms. Dunlop cooked a version for her student friends and they all agreed that she had nailed it.
The story has a bitter-sweet ending. A number of years later Ms. Dunlop returned to Chengdu and immediately sought out her favorite noodle man to show him a copy of her newly published cookbook. She found that his shop, along with a large swath of the surrounding neighborhood, had been torn down by the Chinese government. She was not able to find out where Mr. Xie had gone or if he had opened another shop.
As you may know, Sichuan cuisine has some specialized ingredients which create its unique flavors. In her scholarly Sichuan cookbook Land of Plenty Ms. Dunlop kindly provides a large section on the Sichuanese pantry, with names and descriptions (in English and Chinese) of all the common ingredients used in this complex cuisine. One of the most distinctive ingredients is Sichuan pepper. It’s actually not related to pepper or chiles; it’s the berry of the Prickly-ash tree and has been used in Chinese cooking for thousands of years. It has a delightful citrusy aroma and when eaten it causes a tingling and numbness in the mouth that is intensely pleasurable. When combined with hot chilies it forms the bedrock of many Sichuanese dishes.
Ms. Dunlop warns that much of the Sichuan pepper available at Asian markets in the US is of poor quality and she recommends several mail order sources. It turns out that one of them, Adriana’s Caravan, is right here in New York City and they allow you to pickup your order in person if you pre-pay over the phone. They had almost all the ingredients I needed for Mr. Xie’s Dan Dan Noodles, and were able to have them ready for me that very afternoon, talk about convenient. Adriana’s Caravan has a huge catalog of spices and specialized ingredients from all over the world and they take good care to order in small amounts, so what you get is nice and fresh. Their Sichuan pepper is a lot more expensive ($36/lb.) than what I’ve seen in Asian markets, but it’s completely worth it. I’ve never experienced this amount of mouth numbing tingle, even at the downtown branch of Grand Sichuan restaurant. I’ll have to cook more recipes soon which feature it, so it doesn’t go stale on me, oh, the hardship!
At this point I only had three ingredients left on my shopping list: ya cai, a variety of Sichuanese pickled mustard greens; dried Sichuan chilies, also called “facing-heaven” chiles because they grow upside down; and fresh Chinese noodles. Helpful members of the online food forum eGullet recommended the Hong Kong Supermarket in Flushing, Queens as being one the best sources for Chinese ingredients in New York City. So I hopped on the Number 7 train and went out to one of the largest Chinatowns in the US.
The Hong Kong Supermarket is located inside of the Hong Kong Plaza on Main St. in Flushing. It’s a large full-service grocery store, complete with fish, meat and produce departments as well as pan-Asian packaged goods from China, India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and many other places. The fish looked stunningly fresh and the prices were really good, if I lived closer, I’d do all my fish shopping there. The packaged goods are labeled in a wide variety of languages depending upon their origin and, thankfully, some packages also have English on them.
There’s an entire aisle of pickled vegetables, so that’s where I went looking for ya cai. I found a jar labeled “Pickled Mustard” in English, and showed a woman who worked at the market the Chinese characters in Ms. Dunlop’s book, asking if it was the ya cai I was looking for. She shook her head and said what I wanted was in a different part of the store. She led me to the produce department and showed me the fresh bean sprouts (which looked lovely and crunchy). I thanked her and decided to use an alternate ingredient suggested in the recipe, Tianjin or Preserved Vegetable, which I had already found.
When I got home, I did a little more research, and it turns out that ya cai can also mean bean sprout. It seems it is used to describe the Sichuanese pickled mustard greens because the proper greens to use are tender and young like a bean sprout. If the woman in the market was not from Sichuan (most Chinese immigrants in New York City are Cantonese speakers), it makes complete sense that she thought I wanted bean sprouts.
Luckily, the Hong Kong Supermarket did have the right Sichuanese dried chilies for the recipe. They were not labeled in English, but their place of origin was. They were from Chengdu! So I took a chance and bought them. When I got home I googled for an image of Sichuanese “facing-heaven” peppers and they looked exactly right. Next time I’m shopping for exotic ingredients, I’ll use Google Images before I leave for the store.
If you’ve never gone shopping in an ethnic market where most of the packages are unintelligible and the staff doesn’t speak very much of your language, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s like taking a little vacation without leaving home. Oh, and how did the Dan Dan Noodles turn out? Let’s put it this way, the cooking was way easier than the shopping and just as much fun. The dish comes together very quickly and is multi-layered with classic Sichuan flavors including the pleasurable numbness of the Sichuan pepper, and the heat from the “facing-heaven” chilies. If I do say so myself, these Dan Dan Noodles were better than any I’ve had in New York’s Sichuan restaurants.