My first bite of Beijing Zhajiang Noodle happened on a scorching summer day in 2002.
I was 12 years old and had traveled to Beijing with my mother. I think I visited the Forbidden City or the Great Wall earlier that day, but the summer heat made my memory hazy.
That day really came into clear focus when stepped back into my aunt’s apartment, who was hosting our visit. The scent of savory, caramelized pork awoke me from my zombie state; I saw a table filled with fresh, shredded cucumbers and cubed celery, hand-pulled noodles seasoned with sesame oil and Zhajiang, a sauce made of crispy pan-fried pork chunks slowly stewed with fermented yellow soybean paste. This is how I was introduced to “Beijing Zhajiang noodle”.
Making a perfect bowl of Zhajiang noodle requires a little DIY attitude. With my aunt’s instruction, I topped a plate of noodles with shredded cucumber, cubed celery, mung bean sprouts, and a heaping spoonful of Zhajiang. I mixed them well with my chopsticks and had by first bite – oh man, words can’t describe what I experienced.
The juiciness of the vegetables, the crispiness of the pork chunks, and the chewiness of the hand-made noodle, sealed with the perfectly balanced sweet and savory sauce… It was like firewoks, an opera, or a symphony erupted in my mouth.. I could hear the soprano of vegetables and the bass of pork singing a heavenly, harmonious chorus on my tongue. If I had wings, I would have flown off the ground.
Over the next few years, I learned that Zhajiang noodle is simply a of cold noodle dish topped with different fermented bean sauces and fresh vegetables. Almost every city has its own variation, and most common stars of Zhajiang sauces include ground pork, pork belly, and tofu. I’ve tasted some Zhajiang noodle variations, from Shanghai to Shanxi, and even returned to Beijing for a bowl at a well-respected restaurant. But none struck a chord like that first bite – they were too salty, too sweet, too sloppy or too stale.
Luckily, my aunt still makes her recipe! And here is how to make the most authentic Beijing Zhajiang noodle that guaranteed to spark your palate:
You will need (for 2 servings):
＊ You only need half of the pork belly in the above picture to make two servings, which weigh about 4 oz.
*Substitute the rock candy with 1 and a half tablespoons of cane sugar (or more, it’s up to your taste)
*The yellow soybean paste weighs about 1.2 oz.
Now you may wonder what is yellow soybean paste; below is the paste with its package as the background:
You can find yellow soybean paste in almost all medium-sized Asian grocery stores; it’s always in a little red square plastic package, with its name — if translated literally — “yellow soybean paste” on top, and will cost you less than $2.
Unfortunately, it’s no available in any American grocery stores, and there’s absolutely NO substitute for it.
I know you might be thinking that Miso is also a type of fermented soybean paste, so why not using that? Well, in Asia, there’re literally hundreds of different fermented soybean products. (Think about the variety of cheese here; Also, can you substitute Feta with mozzarella? No, they don’t work the same way.) Yellow soybean paste and Miso are two completely different products produced with totally different methods, and using miso will actually make the sauce bitter.
My point is: you have to use yellow soybean paste to make Beijing Zhajiang Noodle; it’s the soul of this dish. If you don’t want to make the effort to find it, then don’t bother making it.
For the sauce
1. Cut the pork belly (with the skin on) into 0.8-1 inch diameter cubes.
2. Cut the white part of a scallion into two equally long pieces. Smack them with the flat part of your knife. (this helps to release the flavor)
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add star anise, sliced ginger, Sichuan peppercorn and scallion whites immediately.
3. When the fragrant is potent, oil starts to smoke and scallion white turns golden brown, take all the spices out. (the purpose of these two steps is to infuse the oil with these spices)
4. Still over medium-high heat, add pork chunks. Pan-fry them until the fat in the pork is almost rendered out and the pork chunks turn crispy and golden-brown color. This step will take a while, for about 8-10 minutes. Stir constantly.
5. In the meantime, dilute dry soybean paste with water in a small bowl, start with two tablespoons of water. If not enough, slowly add one more tablespoon of water.
5. Once fat is almost rendered from the pork, add water and soybean paste mixture. Slowly combine pork chunks and mixture with a spatula, and then add more water till pork is almost covered.
7. Increase the heat to high and bring everything to boil. Once the sauce is bubbling, cover the pan with a lid and reduce the heat to medium-low. Let it simmer for about half an hour to 40 minutes. Stir the sauce once in a while.
8. After 40 minutes, remove the lid and increase the heat to medium-high. Add 1 and a half tablespoons of cane sugar and keep stirring until the sauce reaches your desired consistency. (In my case, I used rock candy; There’s no difference between cane sugar and rock candy; the latte is just more traditional to Chinese)
9. Serve the Zhajiang sauce in a bowl.
For the vegetables:
8. Cut half of a British cucumber into thin strips, and one stalk of celery into half-inch wide cubes.
9. Rinse mung bean sprouts, cubed celery and shredded cucumber thoroughly.
10. Place them on a plate separately and orderly.
For the noodle:
10. Bring a pot of water to boil, add a pinch of salt and noodle. Cook the noodle for about five minutes, and drain it over a strainer. (I’m using dried noodle here, but if you have fresh wheat noodle, definitely go for it. But don’t use pasta)
11. Place the strainer (with noodle) in a pot of ice-cold water (to stop the cooking process), and drain them again.
12. Drizzle sesame oil over drained noodle, combine them well by tossing the noodle up and down for a couple of times.
13. Place the noodle on a plate.
Now you can assemble your own Zhajiang noodle and enjoy the explosion of texture and flavors as I did 11 years ago!
# What’s your favorite noodle dish? (Don’t tell me it’s ramen…)