Wham, Bam, Dan Dan

It’s a good thing I love grocery shopping so much, because I tend to do it more than your average bear. Especially in my days before moving to Austin, when I lacked proper transportation for bulky or heavy items, I would find myself making multiple trips to carry everything on foot- Sometimes in the same day and at the same store, no less. Somehow my hapless friends often find themselves roped into these missions, since the market is “just along the way” to our original destination, or I’ll suddenly remember I’m in dire need of x, y, and z, which of course I’d love to share when the recipe was done. There’s always some good excuse, or at least one reasonably convincing.

Not all accomplices in this recurring crime are matched in their skills for smooth acquisitions and quick getaways, however. Some in particular have proven to be more of a liability rather than an asset. These people know just how to stir the pot before we ever get into the kitchen.

Scanning the aisles with a short, clear list in hand, I’ll have my mission set, but no matter how efficiently we cruise past tempting oddities and intriguing new ingredients, it’s impossible to maintain the same steady pace. Our combined culinary curiosity can’t stand up to the power of a new food mystery, no matter how relatively mundane. On a quest for plain, ordinary, unexceptional bananas, the basket somehow becomes heavy with unlisted extras.

This recipe, and so many others, come to think of it, are entirely their fault. An unusual style of noodles caught my eye and BOOM, they snap it up without a second to breathe, let alone consider the purchase, practically frothing about a story they read about this rarefied staple.

What was such an esoteric import doing at the pitifully ordinary mega mart? How could we possibly pass it by? Suddenly we were on a search and rescue mission, precious cargo in hand, hustling to the checkout line before I could protest.

In the Sichuan province of China, dan dan noodles are typically served as a snack, rather than an entree, swimming in a thick, fiery red broth spiked with chili oil. Pork was used sparingly as a seasoning, but if you ask me, even greater flavor can be drawn from wild mushrooms, rich with umami and unbelievably meaty texture.

Dan dan noodles found in the US are quite different from the original, of course, bearing a gentler sauce that’s more sweet and sour than spicy. Sometimes you might even find sesame paste blended in to add creaminess and mellow out the spices. My approach is a blend of these two styles, creating something entirely inauthentic and recognizable to absolutely no one of either culture. That is, in a word: Perfect.

Cashew butter creates a smoother, more neutral canvas to paint with dazzling Sichuan peppercorns, allowing their unique mala essence to shine through. The “holy trinity” of aromatics in Chinese food are in full force, harnessing the foundational flavors of garlic, ginger, and scallions to carry such bold, nuanced flavors with grace. Funky fermented black beans play off the earthy notes of the mushrooms, echoing back savory tones to the soy sauce and nutty toasted sesame oil all at once. It’s hard to say whether the noodles, mushrooms, or sauce itself is the star of the show, but the overall effect is worthy of a standing ovation.

Authenticity be damned. Let’s just explore, create, and make something that tastes good together.

Continue reading “Wham, Bam, Dan Dan”

Fiery Love Affair

For a spicy gift that will really set your Valentine’s heart aflame, skip the chocolates this year in favor of a more fiery expression of adoration. Chili crisp is the all-purpose condiment that makes every dish irresistible, even if it’s just a bowlful of plain white rice. Heck, you could spoon it over scoops of vanilla ice cream for dessert with equal success, too.

It’s not just for heat seekers hell-bent on toeing the line between pain and pleasure. Aromatics blend in a delicate balance of nuanced flavors, far more complex than your average hot sauce. Satisfying bites of garlic and shallot define the uniquely crunchy texture, while cinnamon, anise, and ginger, create a symphony of complex seasoning.

Ubiquitous in specialty grocers and online, Lao Gan Ma, (老干妈) or “old godmother” is the brand to beat. This simple red labeled jar has dominated the market since its inception in 1997. Cheap, accessible, deeply satisfying across the board; it’s the gold standard that’s hard to beat. That said, anything homemade always has an edge over the competition.

I’m far from the first to take a DIY approach to chili crisp, nor can I claim to have reinvented the concept. I didn’t even rewrite the recipe. Rather, I took a page from Bon Appetit and would implore you to do the same. Show someone you really care by going the extra mile to make a superlative spicy Valentine this year. The best way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, and this one will really set their passion ablaze.