As a self-proclaimed dan dan noodle specialist (I am, after all, host to a video that’s the first to come up if you type the words “dan dan noodles” into YouTube), I am quite ashamed to say that I only learnt what really goes into authentic dan dan noodles until my recent trip to Beijing.
At Transit Restaurant in Sanlitun North, where they paired authentic, sophisticated Sichuan food with contemporary Sino-French-style décor (think green French windows and chandeliers with gold-rimmed Chinese tassels), dan dan noodles came beautifully plated in Phoenix designed bowls and had the perfect balance of spice, nuttiness and that numbing sensation. It was delicious. And then it revealed itself to me, that interesting dark green vegetable. It tasted like mustard greens, and somewhat like Tianjin preserved vegetables, but I knew it was neither.
The next day we had our second dosage of contemporary Sichuanese at beautifully restored courtyard restaurant the Source, a private kitchen tucked away in a small hutong off Nanluoguxiang and opened by the people behind art gallery Yan Art Space. There it was again. That curious vegetable! This time I had to ask the waitress.
“Yacai” she said after consulting the chef.
Yacai, I later discovered, was in fact a dark, salty aromatic pickle made from the tender leaves of one variety of mustard greens. The leaves are sun-dried, rubbed with salt, and then mixed with spices and sometimes sugar. They are then sealed in jars and left to mature for several months. The city of Yibin is one famous producer, and hence its famous noodle dish, 宜賓燃麵 , or Yibin “kindling” noodles, a vegetarian dish made from yacai. Dan dan noodles in Chengdu are also traditionally cooked with this vegetable, though lots of substitutes are available these days.
That said, when you're missing dan dan noodles anywhere outside of China, the best bet is still to come to Nana's kitchen.
Transit Restaurant is at N4-36, Sanlintun Village North, 11 Sanlitun Lu
The Source is at 14, Banchang Hutong, Nanluoguxiang