Friday, February 16, 2007

The Dan-Dan Tree

(Some more Friday Food Blogging: final noodle edition).

Folk songs often come in families of tunes with variations great and small and they cross borders in surprising and delightful ways. The same can certainly be said for recipes, and I have always taken a special interest in food borders -- tracing, for example, the dumpling border which roughly follows the edge of the modern state of Bavaria, extending eastward into the Czech Republic, but fizzling out somewhere before the Solvak border. And how about the Asian sauce borders? From China to Vietnam, soy sauce gives way to fish sauce, which extends through mainland Southeast Asia, but somewhere around Malaysia is replaced by Ketchap, the molasses-sweetened soy sauce (and, thanks to colonial Dutch trading routes, reaches around the planet with the fruit sauces of Africa and the West Indies, onward to the universal (sweet/salty/sour/bitter/umami) tomato ketchup of North America).

A favorite food puzzle for me has been the Dan-Dan (or Tan-Tan) mein (noodle) family. These are noodles with a sauce, but the noodles I've encountered can be vermicelli-thin or spaghettoni-wide, made from fresh pulled or cut or extruded dried noodles. They can be served hot or cold. The sauce can be paste-like based on sesame +/- peanuts, or it can be based around ground meat. It can be Americanized as a mostly peanut-butter affair. It can be mild or very spicy hot, or anything in between. It may be joined by scallions, cucumber pieces, or the mysterious and Michelin-man-like-rhizome known only as the Szechuan preserved vegetable. It seems to be a Szechuan specialty, but Taiwanese have taken it up as their own. It seems to have entered American Chinese restaurants in the 1970's, as a little-noticed item in the back of the restaurants daring enough to venture away from the traditional California-Cantonese repertoire, sometimes as Dan-Dan Mein, more often as something like Cold Noodles Sesame Sauce.

So how do you choose a single recipe for what is actually a family of recipes? Answer: you don't, it requires a recipe tree instead.

DAN-DAN MEIN (担担面 or 擔擔麵 or 擔擔面)

Step One: Choose a noodle and cook appropriately. Ideally, you should learn to pull or cut your own noodles, but that's probably work for another lifetime. So try out a few Chinese (wheat not rice, and -- as much as one can talk about authenticity here -- egg appear to be non-traditional) noodle sorts. Fresh noodles are great, but not necessary, and if you lack a Chinese noodle source, spaghetti will do in a pinch. It's between you and your wok.

Two: After draining your noodles, choose quickly: hot or cold? If you want them cold, rinse them in cold water and go to step three. If you're among the some that want them hot, and wish a meat sauce, go to step four, otherwise, go to step three with your cold brethren.

Three: Add noodles to a sauce containing

(a) either (1) toasted sesame paste (not Tahini) alone, or (2) tasted sesame paste and ground peanuts or natural peanut butter, or (c) peanut butte alone
(b) salt, garlic, ginger, green onion, hot pepper flakes, and szechuan peppercorns to taste
(c) a bit of soy sauce, perhaps a bit of rice vinegar
(d) perhaps some Szechuan preserved vegetable

then go to step five.

Four: Add noodles to a sauce containing

(a) ground meat (beef, pork, or lamb) fried with
(b) salt, garlic, green onion, ginger, Szechuan peppercorns and
(c) either hot sesame chili oil or a spoonful of soy beans in chili sauce
(d) some soy sauce

to which may be added toasted sesame paste and maybe a pinch of sugar.

Five: Garnish with any of the following: small pieces of cucumber, green onion, fresh coriander, sesame seeds. Strongly peanut-flavored sauces favor cucumbers and bean sprouts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Algorithmic cooking, cool.