- Reverse Engineering
- Season 1
- Episode 22
Recreating J. Kenji López-Alt's Dan Dan Noodles From Taste
See J. Kenji López-Alt's original Dan Dan Noodles recipe here: https://www.seriouseats.com/dan-dan-noodles-recipe
Released on 11/30/2021
Hi, my name is Jessie.
I'm at the BA test kitchen today
to have a super secret conversation about Chris Morocco.
Once again, we're putting Chris's supertaster ability
to the test.
This is Kenji Lopez-Alt's Dan Dan noodles.
I'm joining you Chris to recreate this dish
with all of the ingredients in just one day.
He will be able to taste it, touch it, and smell it,
but to really put his skills to the test,
at no point will he be able to see this dish.
At the end of the day,
we'll come back to see his final creation,
and I'll be the judge.
[soft jazzy music]
Whoa, some real punchy stuff happening.
Seemed garlic, ginger, maybe something clean and herbal,
like a scallion or something on top of it.
It's like a piece of chili but maybe riding in
on a really super crispy nubbin of pork
or something or some other browned meat.
Oh, there's so many pieces.
I just got a piece of peanut, very sharp scallion, I think.
Sharp isn't raw onion bite.
These meat nubbins have so much texture
and are packed with so much flavor.
This is a jackknife semi going right
across the highway,
where you see the flashing lights and you're just like,
Oh [beep], we're not going anywhere for a couple of hours.
There's a lot of fat in here.
I feel there's a good amount of oil.
There's a lot of brightness.
There's definitely some Sichuan peppercorn.
I'm getting a distinct numbing sensation on my palate.
It's somewhere between vinegar and wine,
like rice vinegar or black vinegar.
This is like a very fast style dish.
I think it's coming together in a skillet very quickly
or in a wok, and I don't think most chefs
who'd be cooking this style of dish
would be also making the noodles from scratch themselves.
Rice noodles, even when they're toothsome,
tend to have a little bit more of a velvety texture.
I assume these noodles are being finished
in a wok or in a skillet.
They still have a lot of softness and springiness.
The intention of the dish was to brown them.
To me, this is Dan Dan noodles.
Dan Dan noodles comes from the Sichuan province of China,
but this is some individual's interpretation of that dish,
and it's not an interpretation that I've had before,
so I couldn't even begin to guess at who created it.
I think that's about as far as I can go just talking
out loud with a sloth blindfold on.
I'm trying to break down the components
of this dish in my mind.
Cooking off the noodles, the pork mixture,
and then I think scallion and peanut needs
to go over the top as well.
I think we need to try a few different types of vinegar.
I wanna try a black vinegar.
I wanna try rice vinegar.
Garlic, ginger sugar as an option just
for building up the sweetness of that pork mixture.
I think we need ground pork.
We need dried red, I'm gonna say dried red whole chilies.
And then the noodles themselves,
I'm looking for a thin wheat-based noodle.
And I think scallion and peanut needs
to go over the top as well.
Our team is gonna go shop for these ingredients.
Sadly, no grocery cart riding today,
and then I will have my first shot at the dish.
I'm gonna be trying this a few different ways
and then arriving hopefully in one clean direction
to go in for the first judging.
So we're gonna do some fine chopped garlic.
So this is gonna be for the aromatic base
that's gonna go with the pork.
Ginger, pretty confident I smelled it. Then scallion.
So I'm gonna cook the ramen noodles first
and the lo mein noodles and see which one seems better.
I'm terrible at using a wall. Using it well is a skill.
The way you move foods around in it.
Chili flake, Sichuan, black vinegar.
[soft jazzy music] [food sizzles]
The question is, do I need to pull this to the side,
or should the noodles just go in there?
[beep] I don't know.
Feels weird not to put the noodles in there.
I'm just going for it.
All right, well, that got a little bit crispy and weird.
So this is not even the first version
that I'm gonna submit for critique.
This is version half.
I have enough time to make this at least one more time.
So I'm gonna taste this, see what adjustments I wanna make,
hopefully make it even better before the first judging.
Little bit of a poor showing.
The flavors are feeling a little bit muted to me.
While the overall construction of the dish
feels very similar to what the original was in my mind,
I need more flavor here.
That sensation that I had with the original
of having like almost a vinegarette, if you will,
dressing the noodles, that is not present here.
Also, the ramen noodles, they're a little bit clingy.
I wanna try the lo mein noodles and see if they feel
like a little bit more separate
and distinct from each other.
Also, we talked about that sensation
of having fat or liquid coat your fingers.
It's not really present here.
I think I can go heavier on just about everything.
I'm gonna do another one that we'll submit for version one.
We're gonna do lo mein noodles this time.
I was getting a certain stickiness from the ramen noodle.
Sometimes I think they do function a bit better
in liquid than they do dry.
So the intention I have is to sprinkle some
of the Sichuan peppercorn into the pork mixture,
and the question in my mind is,
is that enough to bloom its flavor,
or do you need to toast it beforehand?
Bloom just means you're activating the natural aromatics
and oils inside the spice, so you're developing its flavor.
I guess I'm gonna try to sprinkling it
into the pork and see what happens.
Let's go for it.
So first, I'm just toasting Sichuan peppercorn dry.
All right, these are just lightly smoking off to the side.
Noodles can go in.
[soft jazzy music]
I'm gonna go a little heavier on oil this time.
I really felt there was an oily coating
in the original dish that was missing.
All right, so I'm gonna double ginger,
and I'm gonna double the garlic,
so two teaspoons of each.
More flavor, more better.
Half teaspoon of Sichuan,
and I'm going with more of a teaspoon of chili flake.
Even for how hot that chili flake was really got lost
in there with all those other flavors.
Leaving the chili in a little bit longer
will improve its flavor up to a point,
but when it toasts, it's gonna get bitter.
All right, one thing I'm also gonna do is,
so I used two tablespoons of the black vinegar before.
I'm gonna do two tablespoons of black vinegar
plus a tablespoon of seasoned rice vinegar.
Seasoned rice vinegar is rice vinegar,
but it's got salt and sugar added to it.
Here's the chopped peanut and scallion.
I think we can call this version 1.0.
So you definitely do not taste the vinegar on the meat.
You do have or taste it on the noodles,
so that's at least something.
Flavors are good. Balance is good.
Missing some texture on the pork.
For ingredients, I'm gonna say 70%.
It doesn't feel the original dish, and it's escaping me why.
There is a consistency to the saucy coating
on the noodles in the original dish
that it feels a little bit a vinegarette.
That is very vexing to me. Technique, again, 70%, maybe.
I think things could be done in a different order.
I also think the Sichuan peppercorn and the chili
could frankly be its own component
as a chili oil or something.
Where are the noodles going and at what point?
That feels very opaque to me here.
Appearance, this matches what I was thinking in my mind.
Maybe the meat needs to be a little bit darker,
browner, more crunchy, but 85?
I'd say flavor wise, maybe we're at 80%.
So in a very exciting break from previous format,
I will actually be receiving my actual scores
for this round development right now.
I won't necessarily know what I need to change,
but I'll know that area in which I might be looking
at a bit of a deficit.
My actual scores in addition
to the scores I've just given myself are on this card.
Huh, okay. Ooh, ugh.
What is very interesting to me
is that I gave myself an average of a 76,
and in fact, I am averaging a 76.
I will have another chance to taste the original dish,
and then I'll have a final chance to cook the version
that ultimately has to be presented to the judge.
[soft jazzy music]
You smell the vinegary something coming off of this.
It's so aromatic with the Sichuan peppercorn.
The noodles are more clumped against each other.
Feels somewhat distinct from the pork mixture.
What I learned here is that I really need to be willing
to potentially go with what I'm tasting,
which is that the noodles maybe never even went
to the wok at all, that they have their own dedicated sauce
or dressing that might have a base of chili oil with it.
Pork really needs to be very crispy.
Need to take that a little bit further.
I'm good with this tasting.
I'm ready to cook my final version of the dish.
My work here is done.
All right, we need to make some chili oil.
The thing that defines chili oil
is just chilies and oil heated together.
A house chili oil for a given restaurant
might include like 15 ingredients
but not in such great quantities
as to really influence the outcome of a dish like this.
So we're gonna do chilies,
[soft jazzy music] [chilies crunch]
No need to toast to the centralized peppercorns for this
'cause they'll effectively be bloomed in the oil.
I think the garnish for the dish
could be Sichuan peppercorns.
I also think the garnish for the dish
could be an additional drizzle of chili oil.
I'm leaning much more on chili oil
because a finishing drizzle of that oil
and the solids in it on top of the dish
could explain why I had crispy Sichuan peppercorn
and crispy bits of chili on top of the dish.
I might have initially read them as being part of the pork,
but they could be part of this instead.
I'm not making a ton of oil.
I just wanna bring it up till it sizzles.
I don't wanna push this too hard.
I wanna develop that flavor,
and I wanna intensify the textures a little bit,
but I'm not looking for anything to brown here.
Smell super aromatic, a little toasty.
I'm good with that. I think we can cool that down.
So these chilies have a lot of heat,
not necessarily a lot of color, which is fine.
We've got some nice crispy bits in there.
I feel like this is gonna do well.
We need to figure out like
are we actually using black vinegar in the pork still?
I don't know. It's so funny.
Suddenly in the second tasting,
I got so much more vinegar notes from the noodle
and so much less of that winy,
bright, fruity acidity from the pork.
These things have started to flip flop
in my mind a little bit about
where certain flavors are coming from.
Soy sauce, seasoned rice vinegar,
black vinegar, and chili oil.
So that's my dressing for the noodles.
It's building saltiness and a little bit of umami.
Now it's just down to the pork. Tasted slightly vegetal.
It tasted sweet, I wanna say,
or at least some sweetness was clinging to it,
the way a shallot gets some jammy
and sweet once it's cooked.
The other thought that occurred to me at the time was
could that just be some scallion that's cooked in
with the pork that has softened, bringing out its sweetness,
tempering its raw bite and giving me the illusion
of a jammy shallot in there?
Let's take this show over to the stove.
[soft jazzy music]
All right, noodles are in.
So sticking with lo mein noodles.
I the way that the low mein noodle
stays a little bit separate.
The ramen noodles had a tendency to really cling,
work as almost a solid mass.
The low mein felt a little bit more distinct.
Staying doubled up on garlic and ginger relative
to the first pass I made.
I'm gonna do the addition of scallion here 'cause why not?
And I'm also gonna do a little pinch of sugar
'cause [beep] it.
I'm gonna do a touch of soy sauce in here.
It feels it's gonna want a touch of seasoning.
I really wanna increase that sensation
of it being caramelized and super developed.
So noodles are coming out, getting drained.
So noodles are going into the dressing here.
The flavor's nice. I feel we're the closest we've come here.
I'm putting the pork just on top here.
Highly seasoned, aromatic pork mixture.
I wanna make sure I get some crispy bits in here,
the Sichuan peppercorn, so a little extra texture.
Chopped peanut. Finally, the scallion.
All right, well that's version two.
I think I want to believe that I got closer.
I don't really know that we stuck the landing on this one.
In this version, we've introduced soy sauce.
We re-introduced sugar.
Is there any other completely new ingredient here?
I don't believe so.
I'd say maybe ingredient wise, I'm at 80 now.
Technique, that is where I suffered the most.
Let's be optimistic and say that
maybe I'm pulling up to a 75 here.
Appearance. We were high with appearance.
I'd say we're at 90% now.
Taste, I'd say I'm comfortably around 85 now, I would say.
That puts me at an 83 average for myself scoring.
I would take it.
This is something I still have so many questions about,
but it is nonetheless the version I have
to submit to the judge, so I am looking forward
to hearing what's actually going on.
Hi, Chris. Hi, Jessie.
How's it going? Good. How did it go for you?
For a dish that takes a surprisingly short amount
of time to cook, it felt a very long day to me.
Do you have any idea of what this dish might be?
I think this is Dan Dan noodles.
It's a dish that I have a little bit
of familiarity with but not a lot,
and I don't know that I've ever made it.
No guess as to the chef, really.
May I present you Kenji Lopez-Alt's Dan Dan noodles.
When it's Kenji, I feel it's no holds barred.
He will stop at nothing to achieve the result
that he's looking for.
He will employ any method in service
of creating whatever it is.
It looks pretty much identical
to me appearance wise, right?
Yeah. There's a little extra sauciness here.
I really couldn't discern that oil on the plate.
You could tell that there was a oily coating on things,
Look at the crispiness of what I assume is pork.
It is pork. You get that right.
Well, I got one point.
So you got a lot of the ingredients right,
but some of them are in the wrong places.
Okay. And for example,
I think garlic is a big thing. Interesting.
So the garlic belongs in the dressing or in the chili oil?
It belongs in the dressing, so it's not cooked,
and also, it got finished a little bit
with raw grated garlic.
So it should have a little punch from the raw garlic.
I think the big missing piece
was the Sichuan preserve vegetables.
Shoot. I don't even know about this.
I've never tried it before.
Is this a jar that I can take home now?
[Jessie] Yeah, I believe so.
It's my souvenir for the day? Yes.
So for ingredients, you gave yourself 80.
I'm gonna give you 81. Okay. [laughs]
I think you did pretty well.
I would expect you to get the garlic raw
Understand, yeah. Okay. than cooked.
And for technique, you gave yourself 75.
I'm gonna give you 73. Okay.
Like I said, a lot of ingredients in the wrong places.
So you are right about making chili oil
and then how that goes to the vinaigrette.
Okay, okay. That's cool.
And another thing about technique is for this version,
the noodle is just finished on the plate.
It didn't get tossed
Oh, wow. and then get plated.
And in your version,
you toss everything first and then plate it.
You guys are knives out today. That's fine.
I see how it is. Cool.
And for appearance, you gave yourself 90.
I'm gonna give you 95.
I think they looked- I knew I liked you, Jessie.
[laughs] Yeah, they look We're back!
pretty much identical to me. Yeah, exactly.
Right. Exactly the same.
And the toppings, visual toppings are very on point.
So that just leaves taste. Shall we taste it?
Flavors are a little bit more muted.
Everything could just be turned up
about 20% here relative to where it is,
and the noodles could have been a little bit,
yeah, little bit chewier.
For something with raw garlic,
there's so many other competing
and perhaps even louder flavors to me,
it doesn't really stand out that much.
I understand that.
You said you understood it. You didn't say that you agree.
For the score of the tasting, you gave yourself 85.
I'm going give you 81.
Yeah. Ooh. Ooh.
I think- Those four points burn.
It's just missing that punch
from the preserved vegetable and the raw garlic.
That's fair. It's certainly off the original.
In both round, you really accurately assessed your scores.
So- That's safe to say
that's never happened before.
I'm gonna give you 100 on scoring herself.
You did amazing, amazing on that.
So in the non-existent category, I get 100,
and I'm honestly walking away
from this one feeling pretty good.
Now I'll have my preserved vegetables
to screw around with at home for the next few weeks.
Yeah. And who knows?
Maybe I'll get it next time, right?
Thank you so much for hanging around.
Thank you for having me. I caught some breaks.
The raw garlic, so be it. Okay.
The preserved vegetables. Didn't know that that was a thing.
A little bit older, a little bit wiser,
certainly a lot grayer.
Just because you think you might know the dish
doesn't mean you have any idea how a given chef
has chosen to interpret it and put it together.
This was textbook case of that.
I'm good on this one, but fair play to you, Kenji.
[soft jazzy music]
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