Dark Matters

I’m tired of hearing “it’s a matter of taste.”

Is it? Or is bad taste one of those things — like porn, pain and excess — where you know it when you see it, when you feel it? I’ve been circling this question for years, and each turn is another uncomfortable opportunity to interrogate my certainties. I don’t have many. But in my brief adulthood I have armed myself with a few inflexible convictions on matters humble in scale — e.g. the perfect pizza temperature, the ideal noodle doneness, the barbarity of certain phrases (looking at you, “as well as.”)

Confronted with opposition in these matters, I can be fierce and unrelenting. So when I learned my uncle planned to make what I deemed to be the inferior version of a favorite noodle recipe, I insisted on a taste test. The dish? Zha jiang mian, like a Chinese bolognese on steroids. You might also encounter the not-for-beginners Korean derivative, Jajangmyeon, which is gooier than the Chinese recipe, often milder and regrettably not part of our experiment.

Today we consider two dark sauces. The essential components are the same: fatty pork, fermented bean paste and ginger. Both are authentic manifestations of a classic recipe, originating in northern China. Both are aggressively flavorful. Neither can safely be enjoyed whilst wearing pastels. Only one can be better. Which?

On the right is the version originating from Beijing. This is the sauce in its most intensely savory incarnation, using a combination of ultra-salty Chinese yellow soybean paste (huang jiang) and mellower, darker sweet bean sauce (tian mian jiang). On the left, we have the sauce in the Tianjin style, which is pretty much identical with one very important exception: no yellow soybean paste. Here, the exclusive use of sweet bean sauce results in a more visually striking dish that hits much harder on the sweet notes.

Which some people like. But not me. Or at least I didn’t think so. True to form, I found the Tianjin style too sweet and the base flavor too mild — especially in combination with such assertive ginger. But I was surprised to find that the Beijing style felt unbalanced in the other direction — too forceful, too harsh, too uncomplicatedly salty. Combining them both in one bowl made me (and I think my noodles) happiest. Perhaps my tastes are changing. In this matter, I suppose I concede.

Beijing-Style Zha Jiang Mian (Huang Jiang)

Ingredients:

– 16 oz. fresh wheat noodles noodles
– 1 1b. pork shoulder or pork belly, ground or finely chopped
– 3 tbsp. Chinese soybean paste (huang jiang)
– 2 tbsp. Chinese sweet bean sauce (tian mian jiang)
– 2 tbsp. finely julienned ginger
– 2 tbsp. finely julienned scallions
– 3 tbsp. Chinese wine or cooking sherry (Shaoxing wine)
– 1-2 tbsp. vegetable or canola oil (more oil for less fatty pork)
– 1/4 cup water

Toppings (as desired):
– Julienned English or Persian cucumbers
– Julienned carrots
– Soy bean sprouts
– Chinkiang black rice vinegar
– Spicy chili oil
– Garlic

Directions:

Heat the oil in a hot wok over medium heat. Add the pork and cook for 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently, until most of the fat is rendered and the meat begins to brown.

In a bowl, combine the Chinese soybean paste and Chinese sweet bean sauce.

Remove the pork from the wok, leaving the rendered fat. Add the mixed sauce and stir-fry until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the ginger, scallions and Shaoxing wine. Stir and cook for 30 seconds. Return pork to the wok. Combine with the mixed sauce and cook another minute. Pour in 1/4 cup of water, and cook another 3 minutes until sauce reaches desired consistency. Adjust water and seasoning as needed with salt and sugar. Remember the sauce should be on the strong side, since it will be added to noodles.

Meanwhile, bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Add fresh noodles; cook 4 minutes or until firm and cooked through. Using chopsticks or tongs, split the noodles between four bowls. Add 1-2 spoonfuls of pork sauce to each bowl, garnishing to taste with julienned vegetables, chili oil, garlic and vinegar. This gets messy – try not to feed the dog.

Tianjin-Style Zha Jiang Mian (Tian Mian Jiang)

Ingredients:
– 16 oz. fresh wheat noodles noodles
– 1 1b. pork shoulder or pork belly, ground or finely chopped
– 5-6 tbsp. Chinese sweet bean sauce (tian mian jiang)
– 2 tbsp. finely julienned ginger
– 2 tbsp. finely julienned scallions
– 4 tbsp. Chinese wine or cooking sherry (Shaoxing wine)
– 1-2 tbsp. vegetable or canola oil (more oil for less fatty pork)

Toppings (as desired):
– Julienned English or Persian cucumbers
– Julienned carrots
– Soy bean sprouts
– Chinkiang black rice vinegar

Directions:

Heat the oil in a hot wok over medium heat. Add the ginger and scallions and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the pork and cook for 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the meat is browned. Add Chinese sweet bean sauce, combine and cook for 2 minutes. Add the cooking wine and cook, stirring, for another 2-3 minutes until sauce thickens. Add scallions, cook another 30 seconds, and transfer sauce into a bowl or set aside.

Meanwhile, bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Add noodles; cook 3-4 minutes or until firm and cooked through. Using chopsticks or tongs, split the noodles between four bowls. Add 2 spoonfuls of pork sauce to each bowl, garnishing to taste with julienned vegetables and vinegar.

One thought on “Dark Matters

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s