The Curious Case of Tan Tan Noodles

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In my previous attempt to make Tan Tan Noodles, I was sorely disappointed at the results of soup-y, not-so peanut-y noodles.  So much so that I made them into what I wanted them to be – cold sesame noodles.  The two are not the same, even thought I’ve held it in my mind for so many years.  It’s not the dish that needed the adjustment, it’s my lack of knowledge.

I made Tan Tan Noodles again, following the same recipe in Ken Hom’s Asian Vegetarian Feast to a tee.  Embracing the broth-like sauce of briny, crunchy preserved Sichuan vegetables, fresh ginger and garlic, spicy chili bean sauce and rich peanut butter, it hit all the right notes, but I still didn’t like it that much.  The fresh egg noodles absorbed the broth like a sponge, and the preserved Sichuan vegetables didn’t meld with the noodles as they slid off with every bite.  It also needed something else.  Maybe a sprinkling of fresh peanuts?  But they too slid off.  The sauce was good but the noodles were not the right venue.

In the meantime, I had Dan Dan noodles at Szechuan Gourmet, whose version had fresh wheat noodles, leaf-y preserved vegetables, and ground pork.  Not a stitch of peanut butter or sesame paste, it was driven by chile oil in a light broth, almost like a bolognese.  The real deal, as I would discover in Fuschia Dunlop’s book of Sichuan cooking, Land of Plenty.  So what did I just make?

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Inspired by my out of town guest, who lost in the fridge, served up the spicy sauce on top of rice.  He thought it was a complete meal, but I realized tofu would be the perfect companion for the sauce.  Almost curry-like, the tofu took on the flavor of the sauce and was relatively easy to scoop up with the crunchy vegetables and rice.  Ignorance is one thing, making the most of a situation is another.

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