As a child, Josh Ku typically went to Taiwanese eating places in Flushing, Queens. A spotlight of those household journeys was zhajiangmian — a bowl of thick, chewy contemporary wheat noodles coated in a savory-sweet pork-studded gravy and showered with chilled cucumber shards. Tossed collectively, the noodles weren’t soupy however not dry, sizzling but cool, texturally all over, and unimaginable to cease slurping.
Years later, when Ku opened Win Son, a Taiwanese American restaurant in Brooklyn’s East Williamsburg, he put lamb zhajiangmian on the menu. Consisting of thick noodles, gamey lamb, and a sauce accented with spices like cumin and mint, it was nothing anybody had ever seen earlier than, however that was maybe the purpose. Ku and Trigg Brown, Win Son’s co-owner and chef, ran the dish by way of an American lens, reinventing the basic for a brand new viewers in a brand new place.
The sort of localized adaptation is one thing that has characterised zhajiangmian all through its historical past. Initially from northern China, the specialty has been avidly embraced in Beijing, Korea (the place it’s often called jjajangmyeon), Japan (as jajamen), Sichuan province, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Whereas standard knowledge holds that the dish originated in Beijing, Carolyn Phillips, the creator of All Beneath Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China, believes that it obtained its begin in properties and small cities in Northeast China earlier than it grew to become fashionable in China’s capital. “It’s very potential that it’s one thing created by the Hui Muslims — they created so a lot of North China’s biggest noodle dishes and bread dishes they usually actually don’t get sufficient credit score for it,” Phillips says.
Though zhajiangmian’s toppings, further substances, and different modifications fluctuate in accordance with location (in addition to from family to family and noodle stand to noodle stand), its fundamental basis stays constant: It’s primarily noodles topped with a rapidly simmered meat sauce whose intensely savory taste comes from a brown, paste-like sauce referred to as tianmianjiang, or “candy wheat sauce” (typically translated on jars as “candy bean sauce”). Cucumber slivers are additionally a obligatory garnish, and most cooks desire to make use of hefty, ideally contemporary wheat noodles that maintain up properly within the wealthy sauce. With a thicker sauce than dan dan noodles and no hint of spiciness, zhajiangmian has typically been in comparison with spaghetti Bolognese. However after getting all the substances, zhajiangmian is far much less time-consuming to organize.
“It’s savory, however the sauce is so wealthy with sweetness and a bunch of different flavors like umami,” says Frankie Gaw, creator of First Technology: Recipes from My Taiwanese-American Dwelling. “It nearly jogs my memory of mole, which has a equally deep taste profile.”
Rising up, Gaw cherished the zhajiangmian his grandmother ready at any time when his household visited her in Memphis. She would add finely chopped shiitake mushrooms to the bottom pork for a meat-and-mushroom base, with the spongy mushrooms absorbing the advanced flavors of the sauce. This isn’t too unusual amongst renditions of zhajiangmian present in Taiwanese households; the addition of mushrooms lets you reduce down on the quantity of meat, which is economical (and a few may say healthful). Nodding to his grandmother, Gaw’s personal recipe for zhajiangmian — or “Hand-Lower Noodles with Minced Pork Sauce,” because it seems in his cookbook — requires ⅓ cup shiitakes to ½ pound of floor pork. And along with tianmianjiang, Gaw makes use of almond soy glaze, a separate recipe he created from soy sauce, almond butter, maple syrup, rice vinegar, and sesame oil. He likes to make use of it instead of hoisin sauce, or on “something that wants daring depth of taste.”
Phillips features a recipe for zhajiangmian in All Beneath Heaven that comes with finely chopped eggplant into the sauce, together with floor pork. She credit this concept to Liang Shih-Chiu, an creator, translator, and Beijing native who wrote an essay on noodles describing the addition of eggplant to zhajiangmian. Phillips, who lived in Taiwan for a decade, says the eggplant virtually melts into the sauce, serving to to steadiness its typically overpowering saltiness.
Finely cubed dry tofu can also be generally utilized in zhajiangmian’s sauce. That is the model served on the New York Metropolis Taiwanese restaurant Ho Meals, whose proprietor Wealthy Ho describes his spin on the dish as “basic mom-style zha jiang noodles” (“mian” means wheat or wheat-based noodles). Along with cucumber, Ho’s zhajiangmian is garnished with slivered tamagoyaki, or rolled egg, a selection that displays the dish’s seemingly countless potentialities.
In Taiwan, it’s not unusual to search out zhajiangmian with further toppings like slivered carrots, blanched greens, or inexperienced soybeans (edamame). Some cooks may use chopped pork as an alternative of floor, and yellow soybean paste, or gan huangjiang, along with tianmianjiang. Chopped scallions and/or cilantro and crispy fried shallots may also be used as garnish. Brown, the chef at Win Son, says that Taiwanese variations of zhajiangmian are likely to have a “cleaner” or extra refreshing taste profile than these in different areas; the primary kinds of zhajiangmian he ever tasted have been really heavier variations of jjajangmyeon that he ate at Korean eating places together with his spouse’s household. (Jjajangmyeon generally incorporates seafood like squid and shrimp; some cooks may use beef as an alternative of pork for his or her zhajiangmian.) Brown and Ku’s lamb model seems of their new cookbook, Win Son Presents: A Taiwanese American Cookbook.
No matter’s in or on prime of it, optics play a giant function in zhajiangmian’s enchantment. The pale noodles peeking out from a thick mound of sauce. The julienned cucumbers on one facet. Possibly a pile of scallions on one other. The preparations are fertile floor for cooks’ design sensibilities.
“The Chinese language actually work these items out properly — the aesthetics are simply extraordinary,” says Phillips.
Phillips has thought lots about zhajiangmian, and in the middle of her years of analysis she’s give you an alternate principle about its title. You see, zhajiangmian, or 炸醬麵, straight interprets to “fried sauce noodles,” which is why you’ll typically see it referred to as that in English. However the “fried” right here refers to deep-fried, whereas the sauce for zhajiangmian is simply pan-fried. However in Northeast China the dish is known as zajiangmian, or 雜醬麵, which interprets to “combined sauce noodles.” So Phillips believes that the 2 names have been combined up sooner or later, since “za” and “zha” sound related.
One other complicated translation ingredient is the candy wheat/candy bean sauce, which we’ll simply name tianmianjiang, its Chinese language romanization relatively than translation. This sauce is important to zhajiangmian in identical the way in which that doubanjiang is to mapo tofu, or doenjang is to doenjang jjigae. It’s unclear why it’s so typically translated to English as “candy bean sauce,” since “mian” clearly interprets to “wheat” relatively than “bean.”
One risk is there are various related sauces made with fermented beans, just like the aforementioned doubanjiang and doenjang. However tianmianjiang is made with fermented wheat, not beans, as labels will inform you. And it’s historically produced from fermented mantou, the Chinese language steamed wheat bun. Phillips realized the “recipe” for the sauce from an aged man from Shandong province. “He mentioned you get the mantou moist and also you allow them to mould in a container after which the mould breaks down the wheat,” she says. She tried this herself a few years in the past, sticking some moist buns in a jar and watching as they obtained fuzzy and gray. “Then they form of collapsed and become this darkish brown and liquidy paste,” she says. “It’s similar to every other fermentation, it’s completely gross and turns into one thing scrumptious.”
Thankfully, there are different methods to get tianmianjiang prepared to your zhajiangmian than letting buns rot for weeks — though in the event you’ve learn this far, don’t let me discourage you from attempting out the jar-mold method. For individuals who would relatively purchase tianmianjiang, you will discover it on-line at marketplaces like the Mala Market, Weee, and Amazon.
Procuring simply this ingredient will in all probability be essentially the most taxing factor about making zhajiangmian. After that, it’s nearly a Hamburger Helper add-on for floor meat and noodles. However as all its variations show, zhajiangmian is usually a versatile system, able to adapt to your whims or fancy. Nonetheless it bends, it’s sure to be scrumptious. Add it to your Lunar New 12 months unfold — the place any dishes involving lengthy noodles are a should — or whip it up on a weeknight for one.
Zhajiangmian (Noodles with Minced Pork and Candy Bean Sauce) Recipe
Makes 4 to six servings
This recipe has been tailored from my 2015 cookbook The Meals of Taiwan, courtesy of HarperCollins.
2 tablespoons impartial oil, reminiscent of vegetable
4 cloves garlic, minced
¾ pound floor pork
½ cup tianmianjiang (aka candy bean sauce, candy wheat sauce or candy flour sauce)
1 cup water
1 pound Asian wheat noodles (any thickness), ideally contemporary relatively than dried
1 medium-large cucumber, julienned
1 massive carrot, julienned (non-compulsory)
2 scallions, thinly sliced (non-compulsory)
2 tablespoons fried shallots (non-compulsory)
2 soy sauce-stewed eggs, halved (non-compulsory)
½ cup shelled, cooked edamame (non-compulsory)
About 2 teaspoons Taiwanese black vinegar, reminiscent of Kong Yen model, or substitute with Chinese language Chinkiang black vinegar (non-compulsory)
Step 1: Warmth the oil in a large saute pan or wok over medium warmth and add the garlic. Prepare dinner till aromatic, stirring often, about 30 seconds. Add the pork and stir, breaking it up into bits along with your spatula, till simply cooked, about 2 to three minutes.
Step 2: In a separate bowl, mix the tianmianjiang and water. Add this combination to the pork and convey to a boil. Scale back to a mild simmer and let prepare dinner uncovered for six to eight minutes, stirring often, till the sauce has thickened barely. Take away from warmth.
Step 3: Prepare dinner the noodles in accordance with the directions on the packages and drain; divide amongst 4 to six serving bowls. High every with spoonfuls of the meat sauce. High every bowl with a neat pile of the julienned cucumbers and non-compulsory julienned carrots. When you resolve to make use of any of the opposite non-compulsory garnishes: Scatter the sliced scallions and fried shallots on prime. Place the egg half and small pile of edamame to the facet of the bowl. Drizzle a scant little bit of the black vinegar on prime of every bowl. Serve instantly.
Cathy Erway is a James Beard Award-winning meals author and the creator of The Meals of Taiwan: Recipes From the Lovely Island. She hosts the podcast Self Evident, exploring Asian America’s tales.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe examined by Ivy Manning