Zhajiangmian (炸酱面) is one of my favorite home-cooked Chinese dishes of all time. People tend to think of things like orange chicken, honey walnut shrimp, and a befuddling thing called fried wontons when they think of Chinese food. These bad, greasy, congealed orbs and morsels stuck to the corners of takeout containers are not for the faint of heart, nor the heartburn inflicted.
This, my friends, is nothing of the sort.
Zhajiangmian is a classic Chinese noodle dish that my mom used to whip up all the time, even after we immigrated to Canada some twenty odd years ago. It’s everything that comfort food should be. The sauce is a succulent simmered pork sauce with dried shiitake mushrooms, and the mirepoix of Chinese cuisine -- garlic, ginger and green onion. It is simmered with cooking wine, tianmianjiang, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, and sesame oil. All of that becomes a luscious flavor bomb, piled generously atop chewy fresh noodles, and finished with crisp, refreshing julienned cucumber.
Once you get a taste of this mouthwateringly sweet, savory, umami-rich meat sauce, you will be addicted. You will inhale a giant bowl of chewy noodles with zeal you didn’t know you had, not be embarrassed to ask for seconds, and lick your bowl and chopsticks clean. Later at night, you will sneak stealthily into the kitchen and heat up leftovers for the most amazing midnight snack ever!
Read my blog for tips on buying Asian ingredients for this recipe: http://pantryno7.com/zha-jiang-mian/ —Jen | Pantry No. 7
Test Kitchen Notes
My testers described this dish as essentially an Asian bolognese, and it has all of the umami and satisfaction of a good ragout. It even starts off in a similar way: alliums and mushrooms sauteed together, meat browned, deglazed with rice wine, and then tons of umami bombs thrown in—in the forms of sweet bean sauce, hoisin, soy, etc. Then the whole thing simmers merilly on the stove, breaking down and concentrating flavor. Served over starchy noodles with some refreshing cucumber for a palate break, it's uber-savory and delicious. Definitely would make again. (Note: I added red pepper flakes because there wasn't a spice element.) —Catherine Lamb
6 to 8
dried shiitake mushrooms, or 1 cup fresh shiitake mushrooms
cloves garlic, chopped
slices ginger (2 millimeter slices)
green onions, sliced thinly
star anise (optional)
Shaoxing rice wine (or sake)
tianmianjiang (sweet bean sauce)
cornstarch and 2 tablespoons cold water, for thickening the sauce
For the meat sauce: Soak the shiitake mushrooms in warm water until they’re soft. Pre-sliced dried shiitakes will take just 30 minutes to reconstitute, while whole shiitakes take longer. Squeeze out the water and roughly chop the mushrooms. Save the mushroom water for the sauce.
Heat a large pan with canola oil. Add chopped onion and sauté over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Add garlic, ginger, green onions, star anise, and shiitakes. Continue to sauté for a minute, until fragrant. Push the vegetables to the sides of the pan, and add the ground pork. Break down the pork and sauté until the meat is all browned, stirring and pushing the meat around constantly.
Add the Shaoxing cooking wine to the pan, and let it cook off for a minute. Add the sauces (soy sauce, tianmianjian, hoisin sauce) and stir to combine. Start with a small amount of tianmianjian and adjust to taste. Add 1/2 cup of the reserved mushroom water (or water if you’re not using dried mushrooms). Turn the heat down to low, and cover the pan. Let simmer for 30 minutes, stirring every so often. As the sauce dries, add more mushroom water. The sauce should be the consistency of a pasta sauce.
Taste the sauce as it cooks, adjusting the flavor to your liking.
After 30 minutes of simmering, the sauce is almost ready. You can let it cook for even longer (up to an hour on low heat) for a more broken down sauce.
Finally, mix the cornstarch with 2 tablespoons cold water and add to the sauce. Stir over low heat for a minute to let the starch thicken the sauce. Stir in 1 tablespoon of sesame oil.
For the noodles: Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to boil. Place half the package of noodles in the pot (unless you have a huge pot, cook the noodles in batches so they took faster). If you let the noodles sit in hot water that takes forever to boil, they will get soggy. Cook the noodles according to the package directions, tasting them as they cook, as you would pasta. I like to take the noodles out while they’re just undercooked, because they will continue to cook a bit as you assemble the dish. The noodles should be dense and chewy.
For the garnish: Julienne the Persian cucumbers. I prefer Persian cucumbers because they’re sweet and crisp, with a light yellow-green colored flesh. They are the perfect complement to the flavor-heavy sauce and chewy noodles. Restaurants usually just garnish the noodles with cucumber, but at home, I try to squeeze in as much veggies as I can into meals. I like to top each bowl off with half of a julienne cucumber or more.
For serving: In each bowl, place approximately 1 cup of cooked noodles. Top noodles with 1/2 cup of sauce and half of a julienned Persian cucumber. Drizzle with a few drops of sesame oil, and serve immediately.