Zhajiang Mian is a famous noodle dish across northeastern China as well as South Korea. I learned to make it several years ago from a former student from Henan province. She’s a great cook, and intuitively adjusted the recipe to make it vegetarian for me. Scrambled eggs mixed with tofu were the authentic vegetarian swaps. In the US you can utilize Beyond Meat or another plant-based meat instead of the tofu.
Soon after I learned this dish, my parents were visiting me in Nanjing, and I had a few students over to help make homemade noodles and this sauce for them. When I told my parents all of the ingredients in this sauce, they said it sounded bizarre, with too many competing flavors. However, when they took the first bite, their eyes lit up. They immediately asked if I could make it for my grandparents when I went home that summer. And could I also make it for church? I admit, the combination of ingredients initially sounds strange because it’s different from an Italian pasta sauce, and honestly the final product has a murky color that isn’t very pretty. You’ll notice I don’t even have any good photos of the sauce. The sauce almost looks like a wok-ful of puke, but it smells wonderful and tastes delicious. The predominant flavors here are ginger and fried peanuts.
I was recently in Shandong province visiting a former student. Her mom is a professional noodle-maker, and at one meal she made the noodles, and the student asked me to make the Zhajiang Mian sauce because she and I had made it together several times when she was a student here in Nanjing. In fact, when we made it for my parents, she was the student who made the homemade noodles for that meal. Because this sauce comes from a different province, her mom didn’t know it, and she was learning it from me that day. I sometimes find myself teaching Chinese regional dishes to Chinese friends from different provinces, which seems strange.
I use Chinese yellow bean sauce for this, but you can use a Korean daenjang or a Thai fermented yellow bean sauce.
This version of the recipe has carrots and garlic shoots. You can substitute most any other vegetables instead of the carrots. I recently used spinach and taro roots in their place. It might be difficult for you to find garlic shoots, and if that’s the case, you can double the amount of green onions.
Zhajiang Mian recipe: for 6 people with leftovers
3/4 cup peanuts
1 block soft tofu
1/2 head of garlic
ginger: same amount as garlic
1 bunch green onions, white and green parts
2-3 TBS yellow bean paste
ground dried red chile, to taste
ground Sichuan peppercorns, to taste (optional)
splash of soy sauce
1 bunch garlic garlic shoots ( or substitute another bunch of green onions)
3-4 TBS cornstarch
Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Fry the peanuts, then remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon. Set the peanuts aside.
Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Cut the soft tofu into a small dice, then carefully stir the diced tofu into the beaten eggs. Heat a little more oil in the wok over high heat. When very hot, add the egg-tofu mixture. It will puff a bit like a soufflé. When fully scrambled, removed that egg-tofu mixture from the wok and set aside.
Chop the garlic, ginger, green onions and garlic shoots. Cut the carrots and tomatoes into a dice.
Add a little more oil to the wok. Add the yellow bean paste. A few seconds later, add the ginger, garlic and green onions. Then add the tomatoes and salt. Cook for 2 minutes, and then add ground red chile and Sichuan Peppercorn powder, if using. Add the diced carrots and a little soy sauce. Then add the garlic shoots. Let it cook several minutes. Then add the egg/tofu mixture.
Add about 1 quart of boiling water to the wok to thin out the sauce. Mix the cornstarch with cold water, then add that cornstarch mixture to the wok. Let this cook about 10 minutes while you boil the noodles in a separate pot. Pound the fried peanuts with a mortar-pestle, and then add them to the sauce at the end.