Zhajiang Noodles with Eggplant

February 17, 2015
4 Ratings
Photo by James Ransom
  • Serves 2 as a main dish
Author Notes

In terms of overall structure and popularity, Zhajiang noodles are to northeast China as Bolognese is to Italy: A rich meat sauce balanced on top of chewy strands of dough. But the comparison pretty much ends there. Zhajiang mian means “deep-fried sauce noodles,” which has always confused me. You see, most folks think of this as being from Beijing, and zhajiang noodles is believed by most to be the name this dish was originally christened with. However, I discovered that this dish actually comes from Manchuria, where it is known by the name zájiàng miàn (雜醬麵)—which translates to “mixed sauce noodles," a name that makes much more sense. Zha and za sound very much alike, and perhaps there was some confusion upstream.

My family has 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 ratio of sauce to pasta so that your tongue is initially hit with the salty/sweet/meaty taste of the zhajiang, which is then 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 pieces per bite, but don’t overdo it.
Third, add the secret ingredient of this recipe: eggplant. It ends up tasting like 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 or 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.

Whether Zhajiang or zajiang, from Beijing or the Northeast, this is soul-satisfying stuff.

Note: The most important ingredient here is the sweet wheat paste, which is found in Korean markets labeled as "chun jang" (춘장) and in Chinese as 甜麵醬. The English translations on the label will vary from "black bean sauce" to "sweet bean sauce," but that might lead you to pick up the wrong thing. The best thing to do is to show the Korean or Chinese name to a grocer or a fellow shopper in an Asian grocery store. —Madame Huang

Test Kitchen Notes

WHO: Madame Huang spent nearly a decade in Taiwan and is currently writing a Chinese cookbook.
WHAT: A traditional Chinese dish that's quicker—and more delicious—than whatever you were thinking of ordering for takeout.
HOW: Douse pork and onions in a sauce of ginger, garlic, soy sauce, wheat paste, and rice wine. Toss with homemade flat noodles and cooked eggplant, and serve garnished with green onions and cucumbers for a crisp finish.
WHY WE LOVE IT: While the ingredient list may be long, each one adds something to achieve the perfect blend of fresh, sweet, salty, chewy, and soft in every bite. And once you've sourced the ingredients, it comes together at a speed to rival most weeknight dinners.

A note on the recipe: While the author recommends homemade noodles, fresh noodles from an Asian supermarket can be substituted. —The Editors

What You'll Need
  • For the noodles and eggplant:
  • 1 pound fresh wide noodles
  • 8 cups water
  • 2 small eggplants
  • 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil, plus more as needed
  • For the sauce and garnish:
  • 1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
  • 8 ounces ground pork
  • 1/2 medium onion, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons mild rice wine (like Taiwan Mijiu) (See headnote)
  • 6 to 8 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
  • 3 tablespoons sweet wheat paste (tianmianjiang)
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/4 cup hot water
  • 1 seedless cucumber, trimmed and julienned
  • 1 green onion, trimmed and julienned (optional)
  1. Shake the noodles out onto a tea towel to loosen the strands. Cover them with a clean tea towel to keep them from drying out. In a large pot, bring the water to a boil, then turn off the heat and cover the pot to keep the water warm.
  2. Clean and trim the eggplants and then cut them into 1/2-inch cubes (you should have about 1 cup) without peeling. Deep-fry or bake them in the oven: To fry them, heat the oil in a wok over medium-high and fry the eggplants until they are browned all over; to bake them, toss the eggplants in the oil and bake them at 350° F for about 15 minutes, tossing them now and then until they are completely browned. Transfer the cooked eggplant to a dish.
  3. To prepare the sauce, heat the peanut oil in a wok over medium-high and add the ginger, pork, onion, and garlic. Lower the heat to medium and cook—stirring occasionally—until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high again and fry the mixture until the onion has browned edges, about 2 to 3 minutes.
  4. Pour in the rice wine and stir it around quickly to stop the caramelization. Scoop the mixture up one side of the wok. Raise the heat to high, pour 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 the mixture 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 and onion mixture gently cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Add the eggplant, taste and adjust the seasoning, and cook the sauce for another 3 minutes.
  5. Just before serving, bring the water to a boil and cook the noodles until done but still nice and chewy. Reserving the noodle water, use a Chinese spider or a slotted spoon to remove them to noodle bowls. Ladle the sauce on top of each mound of noodles and garnish with the cucumbers and the green onions, if using. Serve a soup bowl of the hot noodle water on the side to each person so that they may add it if they prefer a soupier base. Your diners should toss the noodles with the sauce and garnish it so that there is a nice balance of fresh, sweet, salty, chewy, and soft in each bite.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • So sett
    So sett
  • Sierra Shear
    Sierra Shear
  • chris
  • fanaledrinks
  • Madame Huang
    Madame Huang
Carolyn Phillips is a food writer, scholar, and artist. She is the author of the fully illustrated All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China (McSweeney’s + Ten Speed Press, August 2016) and The Dim Sum Field Guide: A Taxonomy of Dumplings, Buns, Meats, Sweets, and Other Specialties of the Chinese Teahouse (Ten Speed Press, August 2016). Her work has appeared in such places as Best Food Writing 2015, Lucky Peach, Gastronomica, Buzzfeed, Alimentum, Huffington Post, Food52, Zester Daily, and at the 2013 MAD Symposium in Copenhagen. She and her husband were cultural consultants on the third Ghostbusters movie, her weekly blog is Madame Huang's Kitchen (, she Tweets as @madamehuang, and Instagrams as @therealmadamehuang. Carolyn’s art has appeared everywhere from museums and galleries to various magazines and journals to Nickelodeon’s Supah Ninjas series. She worked for over a decade as a professional Mandarin interpreter in the federal and California state courts, lived in Taiwan for eight years, translated countless books and articles, and married into a Chinese family more than 30 years ago.

11 Reviews

Foodie September 15, 2021
Have you ever tried to find someone in a Chinese market to help you? Lol. At best they point in the general direct and you are on your own. And I am Chinese! In the future show us the jar please.
So S. April 13, 2019
I agree tian mian jiang is extremely essential to zhajiangmian, I subbed miso paste for my own personal quick lunch since that's what I had on hand, and I think it worked out pretty well. If anyone wants to test this recipe but doesn't want to buy tian mian jiang just for it quite yet, I think it works decently!
Sierra S. July 20, 2015
Do the noodles need to be rice or can they be wheat?
Madame H. July 20, 2015
They actually should be wheat, as this recipe's from North China. However rice noodles would work.
Julia July 18, 2015
Does this recipe work in a vegetarian / pescaterian version? If so, what would be a good substitute for pork? Thanks v. much!
Madame H. July 19, 2015
I'd substitute chopped black mushrooms (i.e., shiitake) or lots more eggplant in a heartbeat! I've had this with shrimp instead of pork at Korean restaurants, too.
chris July 13, 2015
Sweet wheat paste? Is this a make or break ingredient? I've never heard of it before.
Madame H. July 13, 2015
I don't blame you for not knowing what sweet wheat paste is, as it is usually given a totally wrong English translation like "sweet bean paste" or "black bean paste" or something, even though the main component should be wheat flour. Ask for it in Chinese markets as tian mian jiang 甜麵醬, or in Korean markets as chun jang 춘장. It's available on Amazon at This is the main seasoning in this classic recipe, so be sure to hunt it down.
chris September 15, 2021
Thank you, I will!
fanaledrinks July 6, 2015
A great rich meal to enjoy anytime. Thanks
Madame H. July 13, 2015
My thanks!