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
- Serves 2 as a main dish
- For the noodles and eggplant:
fresh wide noodles
peanut or vegetable oil, plus more as needed
- For the sauce and garnish:
peanut or vegetable oil
minced fresh ginger
medium onion, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
mild rice wine (like Taiwan Mijiu) (See headnote)
6 to 8 tablespoons
toasted sesame oil
sweet wheat paste (tianmianjiang)
seedless cucumber, trimmed and julienned
green onion, trimmed and julienned (optional)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.