Named for the bamboo danzi poles that food peddlers would outfit with one basket of ingredients and one basket of cookware while traveling the streets of Sichuan, dan dan noodles have evolved from being served dry to being dished up in a variety of different ways, sometimes as a soup and often accompanied with minced beef, chicken or pork.
At executive chef David Lee’s growing chain of vegan Planta restaurants, which now include a location in New York City, beef, chicken and pork are not on the menu. But dan dan noodles are. Instead of using animal protein in his recipe, Lee has swapped in the superfood Kamut and serves it Szechuan-style with his noodles alongside gai lan, coconut milk and coriander.
“Kamut is an ancient grain that’s like a version of barley, but much better. It has more nuttiness to it,” Lee tells InsideHook. “Historically, they would use it in the regions of Afghanistan, Iran and parts of Central Asia. It’s a very hard grain to cook that takes a long time to break down. When it does, it’s very textured.”
In fact, it was the texture that led Lee to use Kamut instead of another plant-based protein.
“I welcome textures a lot. The Kamut was the right fit to make the perfect dan dan dish that was spicy,” he says. “The texture is like minced meat, whether it’s minced pork or minced beef. The texture itself is very spongy, so it gives a lot of chewiness in there. I’m trying to replicate the texture of an animal protein in general, not a specific one. If I were to give you a blind taste of pulled pork and pulled jackfruit, I don’t think you would be able to tell the difference. By the time all the spices and ingredients are put together, you’d have a hard time telling which one was which. It’s interesting in that way.”
Developed via trial and error, Lee’s non-traditional recipe for the traditional Chinese dish did not just appear out of thin air and required a lot of work, and tasting, to perfect.
“A recipe can take at least two weeks to a month. Some dishes come very easy, and then others you have to keep on going back to them,” he says. “You just have to see. It’s good to get some feedback as well and see what the group is saying. The feedback for this one has been really good, 99% positive. There’s been about 1% of people who’ve said ‘It’s not for me.’ People who don’t like grains and texture — it’s really not for them.”
But it is for Lee, who now eats an 80% plant-based diet after committing himself to a healthier lifestyle more than a decade ago following a trip to the doctor. The more he learns about how meat is processed and the way the food chain is evolving, the more resolute he is in his decision.
“Seeing how salmon is produced, I won’t touch it. Our food chain isn’t what it was 20 years ago or even five years ago. It has just gotten worse and worse and worse,” he says. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes and I’ve tasted it. I know what salmon used to taste like and what it tastes like now. It’s night and day. Everything has changed for the worst, unfortunately. I’m not saying plant-based is the cure, but I can say eating plant-based for two or three days out of a week is definitely a good milestone for sustainability and a better lifestyle. I can definitely say that.”
And you can definitely try Lee’s plant-based dan dan noodles — thanks to this modified recipe from Planta.
Chef David Lee’s Dan Dan Noodles
Ingredients for the “meat“
- 6 tbsp oil
- 5 cups Cooked Kamut
- 4 tbsp Hoisin Sauce
- 2 tbsp Shaoxing Wine
- 1 tbsp Dark Soy Sauce
- 1 tbsp Chinese 5 Spice
- 1 pack of Sui Mi Ya Cai (Fermented Mustard Greens)
- In a pan over medium heat, sweat out the Sui Mi Ya Cai in oil.
- Boil Kamut until it blooms for about 1 hour in boiling salted water.
- Add the Kamut to your Sui Mi Ya Cai.
- Add the remaining ingredients and cook until well coated.
- Remove from the heat and cool.
Ingredients for the sauce
- 1.5 cups Tahini Paste
- 1.5 cups Light Soya Sauce
- .5 cup Sugar
- 1 tbsp Chinese 5 Spice
- 1 tbsp Ground Sichuan Peppercorn, Red
- .5 L House Chili Oil
- 2 tbsp Garlic, Minced
- Mix all ingredients until well incorporated.
- Boil your favorite noodle, ramen works best.
- Add coconut milk to loosen your sauce and adjust to your preferred spice level, you can also add Asian broccoli, bok choy or any of your favorite greens.
- Once your noodles are cooked you can toss them in a little bit of garlic oil and pour your dan dan sauce over top. Serve with some fresh cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice.
- You can store your leftover dan dan “meat” in a tightly sealed container and freeze it for a later time.
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