Popular throughout most of northeast China, zhajiang noodles are almost like pasta Bolognese: this is basically a rich meat sauce balanced on top of chewy strands of dough. But there the comparison pretty much ends.
Zhajiang mian means “deep-fried sauce noodles” in Chinese, which has always confused me. Plus, folks generally think of this as from Beijing, and zhajiang noodles is believed by most to be the name this dish was originally christened with. But then I discovered that it came from Manchuria, where it is known by the name zájiàng miàn 雜醬麵, or “mixed sauce noodles.” Zha and za sound very much alike, and perhaps there was some confusion upstream. Who knows what happened... all I know is that I now can sleep well at night.
We’ve enjoyed endless variations on this dish, but I have to say that the recipe below is the best I have ever tasted. But as with great simple foods elsewhere, perfection demands a couple of very important requirements:
First, the pasta should be handmade and fresh. Second, don’t drown the noodles with sauce. You want a good balance of sauce to pasta so that your tongue is initially hit with the salty/sweet/meaty taste of the zhajiang, and then this is complemented by the subtly sweet noodles that act sort of like palate cleansers. The cucumber garnish does much of the same thing, but it is raw and slightly tannic, which provides even more contrast. Some people like to sprinkle green onions on top, and I would not be opposed to a few shards per bite, but don’t overdo it.
Third, add the secret ingredient of this recipe, eggplant, as this ends up as creamy bits of heaven that make the meat even meatier. The idea for this addition came from the wonderful Chinese writer Liang Shih-chiu, who recalled in an essay called “Noodles” (Miàntiáo 麵條) that “our family once was taught by a lofty personage to add cubed eggplant when the sauce was almost done… and the secret lay in doing one’s best to make the sauce on the noodles not too salty.”
He was right on the money.
Zhajiang or zajiang, Beijing or the Northeast, this is soul-satisfying stuff.
[Note: be sure and get sweet wheat paste (甜麵醬), which is a Northern Chinese ingredient. Show these characters to someone at a Chinese market, or ask a Korean market if they have chunjang 춘장. The English part of the label will often call this "sweet bean paste," but no beans were harmed in its creation.] —Madame Huang
- Serves 2 as a main dish
- Noodles and eggplant
fresh, wide noodles
2 or more tablespoons
peanut or vegetable oil
- Sauce and garnish
peanut or vegetable oil
medium onion, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
minced fresh ginger
mild rice wine (like Taiwan Mijiu)
6 to 8 tablespoons
toasted sesame oil
sweet wheat paste (tianmianjiang)
regular soy sauce
seedless cucumber, trimmed and julienned
green onion, trimmed and julienned, optional
- Shake the noodles out onto a tea towel and loosen the strands. Cover them with a clean tea towel to keep them from drying out. Have the unsalted water in a pot on the stove with the lid on to keep it hot.
- Clean and trim the eggplants and then cut them into ½-inch dice (about 1 cup) without peeling. They can be deep fried or baked in the oven. To fry them, heat the oil in a wok on medium-high and fry the eggplants until they are browned all over; to bake them, toss the eggplants in some oil and bake at 350°F for about 15 minutes, tossing them now and then until they are completely browned. Remove them to a dish.
- To prepare the sauce, heat the oil in a wok over medium-high and add the ginger, pork, onion, and garlic. Lower the heat to medium and cook them—stirring occasionally—until the onions are translucent. Raise the heat to medium-high again and fry the mixture until it has some browned edges.
- Pour the rice wine in and stir it around quickly to stop the caramelization. Scoop the mixture up one side of the wok. Raise the heat to high; pour in the sesame oil into the bottom of the wok and add the sweet wheat paste. Stir the paste around in the oil to break it up into a smooth layer and to fry out any raw flavors. Add the soy sauce and sugar. Mix the meat mixture into the sauce and toss these around on the heat. Add the hot water and stir the sauce around to incorporate the water. Lower the heat to a simmer and let the sauce gently cook for 10 to 15 minutes; add the eggplant, taste and adjust the seasoning, and cook the sauce for another 3 minutes.
- Just before serving, cook the noodles until done but still nice and chewy. Use a Chinese spider or slotted spoon to remove them to noodle bowls, but don’t pour out the noodle water. Ladle the sauce on top of each mound of noodles and garnish with the cucumbers and the optional green onions. Serve a soup bowl of the hot noodle water on the side to each person. Your diners should toss the noodles with the sauce and garnish so that there is a nice balance of fresh, sweet, salty, chewy, and soft in each bite.