I had this job for a while in East Chinatown, New York City, and there was a small dumpling place where I pretty much ordered the same thing all the time. Dumplings, wonton soup, and peanut noodles. The dumplings were unbelievable and to this day I still can’t recreate the taste or texture. The wonton soup was basically just beef broth and was more about the delight of slurping up the tiny slippery wontons. The peanut noodles were so simple yet delicious. The place had a NYC Health Department restaurant grade of “C” but that didn’t deter me from going back there week after week for years.

Peanut or sesame noodles is one of those dishes that I made from time to time. I didn’t have a recipe or anything and it consisted of sesame paste and/or peanut butter, garlic, ginger, some sort of liquid like sake, soy sauce, hot sauce, and sugar. It made do and it was pretty good for what it was.

Then one day I randomly came across this Spicy Sichuan (dan dan) noodles recipe on BBC Food by Tom Hom. I looked at the ingredients and it looked a lot like sesame noodles, so I dug a little further on Dan Dan noodles and found another recipe from the Woks of Life food blog by Judy which looked similar but different enough that it warranted a test!

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I was a little surprised by the deep frying of the minced pork in Tom Hom’s recipe. For Tom Hom’s recipe I ground the pork myself and did a coarse ground so it turned out well but if it were a finer ground like the ground meat one may normally find at a supermarket, I can’t imagine this turning out too well. It says to break it up while stirring with a spatula but imagine trying to stir and break up a blob of ground pork in hot frying oil…sounds like a recipe for disaster. It also gives an alternative of roasting it in the oven, but again with normal ground pork it would probably end up being little meatball chunks. Judy’s recipe just browns the ground pork. It’s much easier, uses far less oil, and I actually liked the texture better than the deep-fried version which was a little dry and tough.

Let’s talk about the chili oil. I’m not Sichuan, nor am I an expert of Sichuan cuisine by any means, but what I do understand is that chili oil is a pretty essential ingredient in Sichuan cuisine. Judy’s recipe has a recipe within the Dan Dan noodles recipe for making your own chili oil so there is no confusion as to what chili oil to use. Meanwhile Tom Hom’s recipe just says “chilli oil”. The ingredient has a link on it, which one would presume takes you to a page explaining this ingredient, but instead it takes you to a page titled “Chilli oil recipes” with one “Homemade chilli oil” recipe listed. This chili oil recipe is clearly Italian (the description says “for use in salad dressings, stir-fries or on pizzas”) and is basically olive oil infused with dried red chili flakes/whole dried red chilis. This sounds great for dipping bread or making an Italian vinaigrette, but is clearly not related to nor appropriate for Dan Dan noodles. It’s obvious that the link was placed there without much thought put into it, and it is an unfortunate blunder on the part of BBC Food because infused olive oil would really ruin the Dan Dan noodles recipe. In any case, for this test I used the same homemade chili oil for both recipes for the sake of fair testing. I always keep a jar of this chili oil around and use it as my default Sichuan chili oil.

The ingredients in the sauce are similar but Tom Hom’s recipe cooks the sauce while Judy’s recipe just mixes the ingredients together. So what makes the difference? Well, ratio for one thing, but also the accoutrements. The construction of Tom Hom’s recipe is egg noodles, sauce, pork, Sichuan peppercorns, optional chopped dried red chilis, and cilantro. Judy’s recipe builds it with sauce, white noodles, boiled leafy greens, pork, sauteed Sui Mi Ya Cai, with optional chopped peanuts and optional scallions.

What is Sui Mi Ya Cai, you ask? I had no idea either. Since the recipe called for 1/3 cup of it, I thought it might be kind of an essential ingredient and decided to purchase it online to see what it’s all about. It’s basically some sort of preserved or pickled minced vegetables. The taste reminded me of daikon greens or mustard greens sauteed with soy sauce. It does add a little something to the flavor, but I’m not sure I would go out of my way to buy this ingredient again.

After trying both recipes, the toppings I would not forego would be the leafy greens (I used baby Shanghai bok choy) and chopped peanuts (that is, provided no one has a peanut allergy). The boiled greens make for a nice fresh contrast to the sauce which is spicy, salty, and oily (and I mean all that in a good way). The chopped peanuts added a nice little crunch and flavor.

And one final thought. The noodles. Tom Hom’s recipe calls for egg noodles while Judy’s recipe calls for white noodles. I actually preferred the neutral taste of the white noodles, and if you have a pasta machine I would highly recommend making your own. The texture of homemade noodles is so much better than the dried stuff! I just take bread flour, add a pinch of salt, enough water to form a ball, and put it through the pasta machine. Boil for just a few minutes, drain, rinse in cold water, and serve!

Toss or keep Ken Hom’s recipe: TOSS IT!

Toss or keep Judy’s recipe: KEEP IT!

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