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Oct 30, 2008 07:38 PM

Dan Dan Mian in Vancouver - a quick survey

My first encounter with Dan Dan Mian ("Tan Tan Noodles") was at Szechuan Chongqing's former East Vancouver location on Broadway at Victoria two or three decades ago. The lovely, smooth, and sesame/peanutty sauce was a revelation to (at the time) a young foodie. It wasn't my first encounter with Sichuan Chinese food, but it was the first time I really noticed the difference - It sure didn't taste like the Chinese food I had been eating. Fast forward to today - after my travels through Asia and parts of China which woke up the latent chowhound in me - I'm back on a search for the best Dan Dan Mian in town.

The city of Chengdu in Sichuan, China is the ultimate source this dish. There, they do not make this peanutty concoction. I have come to realize that the Dan Dan I had been eating at Szechuan Chongqing was of a familiar but "inauthentic" variety. This peanutty version probably evolved outside Sichuan - perhaps in Hong Kong or Taiwan then later travelled North America (perhaps around the time of Nixon's visit to China).

In Chengdu, the noodles most often sit on top of a blazing hot of mixture of dark vinegar, soya, chile, sesame oil, Sichuan peppercorns, pickled mustard greens, and a few other things. All the Dan Dan carts in Chengdu serve variations of this theme...with each purveyor adding their own spin to the dish. The toppings often consist of ground or slivered pork fried till crisp with garlic...and/or crushed, toasted dried soybeans..and very rarely (but not unheard of) toasted peanuts to provide textural contrast...sometimes blanched greens similar to spinach (eg amaranth or water convulvus) are added to provide colour.

The eminent Sichuan gastro-anthropoligist (is that even a word?) Fuschia Dunlop attempts to codify a "proper" Dan Dan Mian in her book 'Land of Plenty' (called 'Sichuan Cookery in some parts of the world). She lists two versions - one is a simple "Traditional Dan Dan" made with a sesame chili oil, dark vinegar, pickle mustard, sichuan peppercorn base. The other - which she identifies as "Xie Laoban's Dan Dan" (named after an influential cook who plied his trade near Sichuan University) - is similar to the traditional version...with the notable difference of the addition of sesame paste to the sauce which thickened it. This version is probably the inspiration of the peanutty version that we in the West are most familiar. Thus we have three general versions. that my long-winded preamble is out of the way....which is the best Dan Dan Mian in Vancouver? I am reluctant to provide a winner...none of the Dan Dan I have had here have come close enough to the ones I have experienced in China to be declared "champion". Perhaps Dan Dan Mian just tastes better when you are sitting on your backpack on the side of an alley in Chengdu.

I have not tried the ALL of Dan Dan in Vancouver, of course. I will provide a list of ones I like, FWIW:

-The "original" one at Lin Fine Chinese (which sadly I believe they no longer make). They used to use a toasted (dark) sesame paste that made it unique and delicious. Maybe if you ask...they will make it again.
-The "traditional" Dan Dan at Szechuan House in Burnaby - simple and authentic tasting
-The black sesame topped Dan Dan at Northern Delicacies in Richmond.
-The toasted sesame paste Dan Dan at The Place
-The familiar tasting peanutty-sesame Dan Dan at Lin's (The Dan Dan they serve currently).

Some pics --

If you have a particular favorite, please post here!

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  1. As always, great research and personal experiences from the exalted fmed :-). I have always enjoyed the dan dan mian at Szechuan Chonqing on Broadway which we used often to order as a supplemental dish at dimsum there (close to work). I haven't had it for a while so can't vouchsafe its current incarnation, but it used to be peanutty without being gloopy with a bit of the green stuff, so not the traditional version but quite tasty. The noodles were always well prepared which to me is quite important. Has anyone had it there lately?

    1. To second grayelf, great work. I've enjoyed my copy of "Land of Plenty" but get a little nervous creating some "authentic" dishes without ever knowing what it's supposed to be like. So the pictures help a great deal, both for personal use and with giving me some insight into what I should look for if I ever track somewhere down to try Dan Dan.

      5 Replies
      1. re: raidar

        The best Dan Dan you can have here is homemade. Get the best quality ingredients you can buy and you will be guaranteed excellent results.

        Make sure to buy fresh Sichuan peppercorns from a reliable spice store. It should smell floral, citrusy, minty and not dusty. The peppercorns themselves (actually dried fruit pods) should be whole and brightly coloured. Here in Vancouver, I get mine from South China Seas Trading Co. I haven't found a good source at Chinese markets yet -- the ones I have found at T&T and other Chinese markets have been of poor quality. This makes the biggest difference, IMO.

        You can now buy 'ya cai' (preserved mustard) in small single-serving plastic vacuum packets (similar to the pic I attached below). You used to have to commit to a large earthen jar of the stuff.

        Make your own chili oil with good high-quality dried chilies. This makes a big difference - good quality chilies add a fruitiness to the dish. Get fresh eggless wheat noodles for best results. Also get both toasted sesame oil and light sesame oil - I used an approximately half/half mixture.

        It comes together very quickly - like an weeknight Italian pasta dish. And you don't need a screaming hot wok for this.

        Just do it! ;)

        1. re: fmed

          Nice survey.

          I wouldn't get too hung up on finding the traditional dan dan mien because this dish is sort of like the Sichuan version of American mac and cheese. Just do it anyway you like!

          1. re: ipsedixit

            Yep! I have made it with dried Italian pasta, actually.

          2. re: fmed

            The only Dan Dan I've ever had is the one I make from an old CI recipe, although I have to make it with peanut butter as I've never managed to to track down Asian sesame paste in advance of the craving. It is probably not hugely authentic but it is indeed a good reasonably fast dinner, especially with the Sichuan peppercorns on top. I'll have to give the preserved mustard a try too, thanks for showing the picture fmed.

            Having said that fmed's photos look brothier than the one I make, so I suppose I really should do some "research" first and head off to Lin's : )

            1. re: waver

              Like ipsedixit stated - there really is no right or worng way to do this. I have noticed that a couple of restaurants have been serving a thick version with broth on the side....this seems to be a fairly recent development. If you like it thick...then have it thick!

              BTW - you can probably use tahini.

        2. I loved the preamble! Your posts are so informative and useful and make me see how much I don't appreciate Vancouver enough, even though I'm born & raised here! I really learn a lot from you. Thank you fmed!!! I'm hooked on reading you & the "wordbird"! ;-)

          1 Reply
          1. re: ck1234

            Thanks for reading ck1234 -- and ignoring all the spelling and grammatical atrocities in my stream of consciousness posts!

          2. My first couple of visits to Lin's, we had the dark coloured dan dan noodles that's not as rich and thick as the version they have now, although it's still good. Over the past week, I've gone twice and we ordered the deluxe version that has meat in it's made with the same dark sauce that I remember having previously. Since it has been 6 months since I had the original version, I can't say it's the same but it's pretty darn close !

            1 Reply
            1. re: gourmet wife

              Aha! So that's the secret. I must try the dan dan deluxe next time I'm there.