I’ve often thought about the provenance of zhajiang mian and its infinite variations, following a food coma-induced meal of slurpy noodles laden with flavorful sauces and fresh vegetables. There’s speculation as to the exact origins of this deeply satisfying carb load. Some sources point to the capital city of Beijing; others claim its rightful place among the ranks of Shandong cuisine, which is said to have influenced the flavors and palates of neighboring provinces and the imperial chefs. The chewy thick mian, or noodles, are made from wheat flour and, in the northern region of China, are topped with dark, savory sauces made from salty fermented soybeans. But you don’t have to go far to find Chengdu-style bowls of noodles slicked red with spicy chile oil and healthy sprinklings of Sichuan peppercorns. Certainly not for the faint of heart!
Just off the coast of China, the Taiwanese incorporate tian miang jiang, or “sweet flour sauce,” into their zhajiang, which means “fried paste.” Chef David Kuo‘s version at Little Fatty in Mar Vista, California, is a mish-mash of the Taiwanese and Korean styles. Yes, Koreans also swear by their own version of jjajyangmyun, which uses chunjang, a black bean paste made from roasted soybeans which gives it a slightly sweeter flavor than its Chinese relative. Kuo admits, “To be honest, I chose to put zhajiang mian on the menu at Little Fatty because I could never find a good version I liked to eat … I make kind of a hybrid at the restaurant using Korean fermented black bean paste and Taiwanese sweet flour sauce.”
Kuo builds the flavors of his zhajiang using the same techniques he uses to prepare an Italian bolognese sauce. The onions and pork are slowly browned over low heat for at least an hour to develop their rich flavors. He then adds the black bean paste and tian mian jiang to the pan to further caramelize the pork and onions, enhancing the umami. The fresh wheat noodles are boiled until al denté. Kuo then adds the sauce and tops the dish off with fresh cucumber ribbons, pickled julienned carrots and red chiles to balance the richness of the sauce. It’s a perfect “juxtaposition of the cold, crunchy vegetables and hot, rich pork sauce and noodles.”
Yield: Makes approximately 4 servings
Zhajiang Mian Ingredients
350 g ground pork
200 g onion, diced
50 g Chinese black bean paste
15 g tian mian jiang
50 g Shaoxing rice wine
5 g Chinese black vinegar
A pinch of black pepper
Chicken stock (enough to cover)
Chinese wheat noodles, enough for 4 servings
2 scallions, sliced lengthwise
1 red jalapeño, sliced
1 cucumber, julienned
1 carrot, julienned
2 tbsps granulated sugar
2 tbsps distilled vinegar
2 tbsps water
Pickle the carrots: Peel and julienne the carrot. Transfer to a non-reactive bowl. In a saucepan, bring the water, sugar and vinegar to a boil. Pour the pickling liquid over the carrots and let sit or 30 minutes. Strain and reserve.
Make the zhajiang sauce: In a sauté pan, sweat the onions for 10 minutes. Add the ground pork and brown, using your spatula to break up the meat into small crumbles. Next, add the black bean paste and tian mian jiang and stir, using your spatula to pick up any caramelized bits off the bottom of the pan. Then add the Shaoxing rice wine, black vinegar, a pinch of black pepper and enough chicken stock to cover the mixture. Simmer for 10 minutes.
For the noodles: Boil the wheat noodles per the manufacturer’s instructions. Strain and transfer to individual bowls.
To serve: Top the noodles with the zhajiang sauce mixture. Garnish with the pickled carrots, julienned cucumbers, sliced red jalapeño and scallions.