Dan Dan Noodles

updated Feb 5, 2024
Dan Dan Noodles Recipe

The secret to these dan dan noodles is in the savory, spicy, and nutty sauce.

Serves4

Prep15 minutes to 30 minutes

Cook10 minutes to 35 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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overhead shot of dan dan noodles in a white bowl topped with green onion and peanuts.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Rachel Perlmutter

Dan dan noodles are one of the great classics of Sichuanese cooking, and to understand what makes them so simple yet irresistible, we have to understand their origins. “Dan dan” comes from the vaguely onomatopoeic reference to a traditional street peddler’s shoulder pole (dan): a basket hanging from one end of the pole fills his pots, pans and bowls, while another basket hanging from the other end contains his noodles and garnishes, swaying and bouncing as he walks.

So how did the peddlers manage to make a bowl of noodles taste so good? The key was in the ingredients such as Chinese sesame paste, yibin yacai (pickled cabbage), and layering them to create something greater than the sum of its parts. My recipe is close to the authentic Sichuan dan dan noodles and it uses the highest quality ingredients to achieve maximum flavor. 

What Are Sichuan-Style Dan Dan Noodles?

Although variations of dan dan noodles can now be found across the world, Sichuan-style dan dan is still defined by how the noodles were originally sold on the streets of Chengdu. Here are the components of Sichuan-style dan dan noodles:

  • No broth: Noodles don’t have any broth because it would be unrealistic to carry them around.
  • Meat topping: The meat topping is dry and crumbly, again in the service of being light on foot, but also to prevent spoilage during long, unrefrigerated days.
  • Condiments: Different sauces, spices, and toppings are used so customers can try variation, but since it is more of a snack rather than a meal, they’re all essentially condiments sparingly used.
  • Noodles: The noodles are thin and quick-cooking because everything was made to order.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Rachel Perlmutter

Key Ingredients in Dan Dan Noodles

In making dan dan noodles, the secret is in the sauce. In Chengdu, every street stall and restaurant has its own way of making sweet sauce. You wouldn’t take away any of the garnishing sauces from Hainanese chicken rice, and same with this. You should try to substitute but not leave out any ingredients. Balance is the key to achieving the savory, spicy, and nutty flavors of dan dan noodles. Here are the ingredients you’ll need:

  • Yibin yacai: This fermented vegetable is made from the sprouting greens of one of dozens of cardamine species cultivated around China (cardamine belongs to the mustard family). It is what add flavors the meat topping. In Yibin, a city in southern Sichuan province, yacai is double-fermented with sugar, giving it unique complexity. You can find “Yibin yacai” or “suimi yacai” (“loose rice sprout vegetable”) sold in Chinese supermarkets, or online, but if you need a substitute, look for one of its cousins. Mei cai or meigan cai is another fermented mustard green from southern China, and xue cai or xuelihong from Jiangnan is sweeter but also reasonable. Zhacai is another Sichuanese fermented mustard, but I’d consider it a last resort — it’s typically spicy, which yacai isn’t, and it’s made from mustard stems rather than greens, which gives it an entirely different texture. 
  • Chinese sesame paste: Chinese sesame paste has an aroma that will strike you when you open the jar. Be sure to use high-quality, fresh sesame paste, as the flavors go flat when the jars have been open for a long time. The Chinese sesame paste adds nuttiness and overall body to the sauce without overpowering it. Tahini is much thinner, lighter, and sesame-ier, so I think a better substitute is a high-quality nut butter (the kind that has an inch of oil at the top). 
  • Ground pork: Ground pork is the most common meat topping for dan dan noodles, but ground beef works just as well. Substitute a meaty, savory mushroom like shiitake or maitake for a knockout vegetarian version.
  • Gaotang: I add a small amount of this Chinese superior stock to my dan dan noodles to loosen the sauce and add another layer of umami. I recommend making your own so that you can achieve a concentration that store-bought stocks don’t have, but a good substitute is high-quality chicken bouillon (beef is too assertive). 
  • Chili crisp: Even if you don’t like your food Sichuanese-spicy, a little bit of chili crisp adds texture and flavor. In Sichuan, chefs closely guard their chili crisp formulas, many of which call for dozens of Chinese medicinal herbs. A good Sichuanese chili crisp should be vibrant red yet have depth and fruitiness, not just chili heat. 
  • Shaoxing wine: This is used to tixian quxing (boost umami and neutralize stink) in many Chinese meat or seafood recipes. It does not come from Sichuan, where more local cooking wines would traditionally be used for dan dan noodles, but it is the most widely known and available Chinese cooking wine. The closest Western substitute is cooking sherry, but you can omit it altogether if using beef rather than pork.
  • Roasted peanuts: Store-bought roasted peanuts work for this recipe, but cooking them slowly in oil, which toasts them all the way through and imparts youxiang, oil fragrance, is even better.
  • Ground Sichuan pepper (flower pepper): Although dan dan noodles are not considered a mala recipe, a small amount of it is called for. (Across China, ground flower pepper is more common than black pepper). You can buy pre-ground powder or pepper oil, but freshly grinding whole peppercorns is best. It won’t have the same tingle, but black pepper may be used as a substitute.

If You’re Making Dan Dan Noodles, a Few Tips

  • Make the sauces and toppings ahead. I’ve written the instructions of this recipe assuming that you’re making and serving the dan dan noodles all in one go, but the sauces and toppings can all be prepped in advance (as they would have been in the shoulder-pole days). This makes dan dan noodles an ideal weeknight dinner, as it only takes 10 minutes to cook noodles and assemble a fresh bowl.
  • If cooking for a crowd. Set out all the components buffet-style and let everyone spoon their own dan dan sauce, chili crisp, meat topping, and garnishes into their bowls and adjust to taste. 

Dan Dan Noodles Recipe

The secret to these dan dan noodles is in the savory, spicy, and nutty sauce.

Prep time 15 minutes to 30 minutes

Cook time 10 minutes to 35 minutes

Serves 4

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 1 cup

    low-sodium chicken broth or homemade Chinese chicken stock (see Recipe Notes)

  • 3 tablespoons

    light soy sauce, divided

  • 2 tablespoons

    Chinese sesame paste

  • 1 tablespoon

    toasted sesame oil

  • 2 teaspoons

    Chinese black vinegar

  • 1 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon

    granulated sugar

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    ground Sichuan peppercorns

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    ground white pepper

  • 4 cloves

    garlic

  • 2 tablespoons

    neutral oil, such as rapeseed or canola

  • 2

    star anise pods

  • 10 to 12 ounces

    ground pork or ground beef

  • 1 tablespoon

    Shaoxing wine

  • 1 teaspoon

    dark soy sauce

  • 3 to 4 ounces

    suimiyacai (aka Yibin yacai) or other fermented mustard green

To assemble:

  • 12 ounces

    dried thin wheat noodles

  • Handful of spinach or other dark leafy greens, such as yu choy (optional)

  • 2

    medium scallions (optional)

  • 1/2 cup

    roasted peanuts

  • Chili crisp

Instructions

  1. Make the dan dan sauce: Place 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth or homemade Chinese chicken stock, 2 tablespoons of the light soy sauce, 2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste, 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil, 2 teaspoons black vinegar, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns, and 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper in a medium bowl. Whisk until combined. Mince 4 garlic cloves, add to the bowl, and stir to combine.

  2. Heat 2 tablespoons neutral oil to a wok or large skillet over low heat until shimmering. Add 2 star anise pods and cook, swirling the pods occasionally, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add 10 to 12 ounces ground pork or ground beef and break until into small pieces with a spatula or spoon. Stir fry until completely crumbled in texture and uniformly gray, about 5 minutes.

  3. Increase the heat to medium-low. Add 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine and stir-fry until all the liquid has evaporated and the pork is browned, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon light soy sauce and 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce, and stir-fry until evenly combined. Add 3 to 4 ounces suimiyacai and stir-fry until the yacai is fragrant, about 3 minutes more. The mixture should be loose and dry, and the meat chewy-crisp. Discard the star anise and transfer the mixture to a bowl.

  4. When ready to serve, bring a large pot of unsalted water to boil. Add 12 ounces thin wheat noodles and cook according to package instructions. Meanwhile, mince 2 medium scallions if using. Place 1/2 cup roasted peanuts in a resealable zip-top bag and crush with a rolling pin or bottom of a pot.

  5. Remove the noodles with a spider or tongs to a colander to drain. Add a handful of spinach or other greens to the noodle water and cook until wilted, about 1 minute. Drain.

  6. Assemble each bowl of dan dan noodles in this order: A few spoonfuls of dan dan sauce, chili crisp to taste, noodles, about 1/2 cup ground pork, spinach, peanuts, and scallions. Remember that it’s not a ragu — you don’t need to overload the pork and the spinach. Let it be a symphony.

Recipe Notes

Substitutions: For those with peanut allergies, look for a chili crisp without peanuts, and substitute toasted sesame seeds for the crunchy peanut topping

Make ahead: Everything, except the noodles, can be made several days ahead and refrigerated, covered, until ready to use. Meat and sauce should be brought to room temperature or warmed slightly in the microwave before serving.

Chinese-style chicken stock: Submerge 1 chicken carcass, or mix of chicken wings and pork bones, in a pot of cold water and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim the scum from the top as the water boils until the chicken is no longer releasing a lot of scum. Dump out the water, rinse the chicken, and add to a fresh pot of water along with 4 to 5 pieces of ginger. Bring to a boil on high heat, turn to low, and simmer uncovered for 2 to 3 hours, or until the stock has concentrated down to a quart of liquid.

Crunchy crushed peanuts: To take this recipe to the next level, fry your own peanuts instead of using roasted peanuts. Place 2 tablespoons neutral oil and 1/2 cup skinless peanuts in a wok or small skillet over medium heat. Use a spatula to constantly move and flip the peanuts, letting the oil penetrate evenly, until they begin to sizzle, about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and continue frying until the peanuts begin to turn golden, 2 to 3 minutes more. Turn off the heat and continue turning the peanuts for another minute, or until they stop sizzling. Let the peants drain and cool on a paper towel for 20 minutes before crushing.

Storage: If noodles have been tossed with the meat and sauce, leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 1 day.