My buddy Sam and his fiance went on a trip to Chengdu earlier this year. When I asked him about the trip, he told me two things. 1. He figured out why I am the way I am: my personality is as Chengduan as it gets. (The culture of Chengdu is perhaps worthy of a future post.) 2. He loves Tian Shui Mian. I laughed at the first part but the second part hit me like a storm. I miss food from Chengdu!
So, I figured I should tackle this situation by recreating the food of my childhood. Forget about the pseudo-Chinese food you find in Chinatowns in the US. Let’s get real. Let’s start with Tian Shui Mian.
Mian means flour noodles in Chinese (in American culture it’s usually spelled mien). You’ve probably encountered this character many times living in the US without knowing it. When you say or hear Japanese Ramen or Korean Ramyum, that last syllable is rooted in the Chinese character Mian. The first syllable describes what kind of noodle you are having. Ramen and Ramyum both came from the word La Mian in Chinese meaning pulled noodles. Tian Shui Mian means sweet water noodles to describe its sweet flavor which is distinguishable from other noodles.
When I had Tian Shui Mian as a child, it was served in a small cold dish. It’s small serving makes it almost a street food. These small bowls of noodles were usually pre-cooked and stacked up in a glass display cabinet which was placed at the front window of a noodle shop. Once you put in your order, the chef picks out a bowl from the top of the stack and adds sauce to it. As a child, I’d press my face on the glass of the display cabinet while my eyes tracking the bowl floating back and forth in the hands of the chef as he added each ingredient to the noodles. The smell of a steamy noodle shop is still vivid in my memories. The excitement was palpable.
There are two important parts to the making to Tian Shui Mian: the noodles and the sauce.
Part 1: Making the noodle. Yes, you need to make the noodle yourself. Tian Shui Mian noodles are thicker and slightly toothy. A very al dente thick udon may come close to that texture but it’s not the same.
What do you need?
- 4 cups of all purpose flour
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
Mix and wedge the ingredients above like you are kneading dough. The dough needs to be quite firm. I slowly add water as needed to make sure all the flour is incorporated into the dough ball but careful not to add too much water. You need to wedge it for 30 mins until the surface is almost smooth.
The dough does not need to rise, so you can move right on to the next step which is to flatten the dough using a rolling pin.
The next step is to cut the noodles. You want to make sure the knife is sharp so it’s a clean cut without rolling or twisting the noodles.
After the noodles separate from each other, dust them with flour to make sure they don’t stick to each other. Be generous with flour.
Finally, the noodles need to be boiled. Make sure your pot is large enough with plentiful of water. You do not want to the noodles to stick to the bottom or each other. They need to be able to freely “swim” around in the boiling water.
The boil is very quick. You want the noodles to be al dente in texture. When you bite into a noodle, the outer ⅔ radius is cooked and inner ⅓ radius still seems doughy. The noodles will harden as you boil it which brings out a toothy texture when it’s cooled.
Bowl the noodles: this is not a large portion dish so don’t put all the noodles in one bowl. The pile of noodles on the cutting board made 5 bowls of noodles.
Part 2: Make the sauce. This is perhaps the most important step to most eaters. The quality of the noodles brings in the most picky of noodle connoisseurs, but the sauce wins the heart of the masses.
What do you need?
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- A pinch of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon of cane white sugar
- 1 teaspoon of brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon of peanut butter
- ½ teaspoon of sesame paste (or tahini)
- 1/2 teaspoon of chinese vinegar (or balsamic vinegar)
- 1 teaspoon of white sesame seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorn oil *
- 1/4 teaspoon of crushed sichuan peppercorn** (powder)
- ½ teaspoon of fermented black beans
- ½ teaspoon of minced ginger
- 1 tablespoon of chile oil sauce with sediments ***
Mix the white sugar, brown sugar, sesame paste, vinegar, soy sauce and salt. You may even add a tiny amount of water. Once the mixture is homogenous, you can pour it over the noodles.
Add the rest of the ingredients on top of the noodles.
*Warning #1. It is critical that you understand that Sichuan peppercorn, while is essential to the authentic taste of Sichuanese food, provides a sensation that you may have NEVER encountered or imagined. It’s been described as numbing to your tongue. But it’s so much more than that. It is beyond the scope of my description. You will just have to find out yourself. If you are not familiar with Sichuanese food, cut down on this stuff. A drop increment at a time.
**Warning #2: this stuff can be debilitating to your tastebuds.
*** How to make chile oil sauce:
Step 1: you need find a ceramic vessel that can withstand high temperature (hot oil). Put in 5 tablespoons of red pepper powder (this is the one I like as it has a good red color and just good spicy for me).
Step 2: heat up 10 Fl Oz of vegetable oil (you may like other oil, but vegetable oil is what most Chinese people use)
Step 3: when the oil temperature is adequate, pour it over the red chili powder. When you pour in the oil, it should immediately make a sizzling sound and the oil will bubble a little. Your house will be filled with this fragrant flavor of chili oil. If the temperature is too hot, the chili will burn and turn black. If it’s too cold, it won’t become flavorful. It may take you a few tries to get this one right, but when you do get it right it will improve all of your Sichuanese dishes!
Interested in reading more posts? Check out our food adventure in Kathmandu.