Everywhere you turn in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in southern China, there are little family-run noodle shops. Some make the noodles to order, while others have them sitting in stacked bowls, ready for a dousing of sauce and spices. Some noodles are served in small snacking portions; others constitute a meal. And, as it’s Chengdu, chilies turn plenty of these noodles red. Sometimes the spice is “buried” below the noodles, ready to rise up and grab you. All are fantastic fun. Here’s a rundown of the noodles you’re likely to find there.
Unless otherwise indicated, all noodles are wheat. Thickness varies according to noodle-maker, with most in the thin-to-thick spaghetti range—though less rounded and cooked a bit softer.
Dan dan mian: 担担面
This is Chengdu’s most famous noodle, though modernity has done away with walking street vendors balancing their noodle-making ingredients on bamboo shoulder poles (dan in Chinese). Compared to the soupy versions you might find outside of Sichuan Province, here dan dan mian is traditionally a dry dish with a scant topping of crispy ground pork, ya cai (preserved minced mustard greens), and sliced green onions. At the bottom of the bowl is the sauce—just enough to coat the noodles—which typically includes garlic, chili oil and/or dried chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, soy sauce, and black vinegar. The result is salty, sour, spicy, numbing, and fragrant. If you sample around the city, you’ll note no two bowls are exactly alike—possible additions include roasted soybeans or peanuts, sesame oil, and sesame paste.
Za jiang mian: 杂酱面
Not to be confused with zha jiang mian (炸酱面)—the Beijing noodles dressed with a thick sauce of meat and soybean paste—za jiang mian is topped with ground pork, and a puddle of soy sauce, chili oil, and black vinegar lies below the noodles. Even better is jiang dou za jiang mian (豇豆杂酱面, or jiang dou mian for short: 豇豆面), which has a healthy portion of pickled jiang dou (long beans) joining the pork. Unlike dan dan mian’s crispy pork, jiang dou mian’s pork is still juicy, giving the noodle dish an unexpected creaminess. Some say the jiang dou help counter the heat of the chili, but I think they actually enable you to add more chili oil to your bowl of noodles. You can also order za jiang mian with some broth or as soup, or you can order it “dry” and grab a side of mian tang (noodle broth), which is said to help with digestion.
Guai wei mian: 怪味面
“Strange flavor” is one of the unique seasoning preparations of Sichuanese cuisine. Not strange so much as complex, it strives for a harmonious blend of sweet, salty, sour, spicy, numbing, and nutty. You’ll often see this seasoning with chicken (guai wei ji), but here it’s a noodle dish that’s strange flavored. The noodles bathe in a spicy red-chili-oil broth with Sichuan pepper and a number of spices. Look for scraps of pork, mushrooms, green onions, and peanuts floating among the noodles. While this dish is not as spicy as it appears, the oiliness can sometimes make the broth hard to finish.
Jiao xiang mian: 椒香面
When you really want to focus on the noodles, this dish is the one to try—it looks just like a simple, innocent bowl of noodles. But proceed with caution. Three types of chili—chili oil, chili pepper, and pickled chao tian jiao (facing heaven peppers)—will make you feel the burn. It’s a spicy affair, with some garlic, soy sauce, and black vinegar in the sauce, plus green onion and cilantro.
Tian shui mian: 甜水面
You’ll know when you’ve found a tian shui mian place (Zhang Lao Er, near Wenshu Temple, is one of the best) when you see stacks of small bowls of precooked noodles on display. Order one or two or six, and the staff will paint the noodles red with spoons of chili-oil sauce and ground chili. Mix the hand-cut, udon-like noodles with the sauce and then chew and chew and chew, and you’ll immediately notice a sweetness that complements the spiciness. They are sauced with reduced soy sauce laced with a variety of seasonings, and a closer look reveals a sprinkling of sugar (and sometimes ground peanuts)—hence the name, which means “sweet water noodles.”
Dou hua mian: 豆花面
Protein-packed dou hua mian stars fresh bean curd. While you might find it with thinner noodles, it traditionally comes with wide, fettucine-like noodles. The tofu is super soft, playing well with the noodles, while peanuts and zha cai (pickled mustard stems) add crunch. Expect a vibrant drizzle of chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn to give you the usual ma la (numbing and spicy) experience.
Yi bin ran mian: 宜宾燃面
This classic dish has a wide array of toppings, including finely slivered roasted peanuts, sliced green onions, and, most important, the pickled mustard greens called ya cai, which bring sourness to the table. The name has an interesting history: ran means ignite. I heard that these “kindling” noodles originated in the nearby city of Yibin, where the chili-oil-tossed noodles were traditionally set on fire for show and smell. Others told me that the name comes from the sizzle of splashed hot oil on the noodles, or because the oil-soaked noodles look like oil-lamp wicks. Fire or no, these noodles are fun to eat and will put a little chili-induced fire in the belly.
Qiao mian: 荞面
Qiao mian are buckwheat noodles. They’re unmistakable, as you’ll see the noodle-maker putting brown dough into a press, which extrudes the noodles into a bucket of water. In suan la qiao mian (酸辣荞面), the cold buckwheat noodles come with soy sauce, chili oil, and a larger amount of black vinegar, making the dish more sour (suan) than spicy (la)—though chopped facing heaven chilies certainly add zing. Also popular is niu rou qiao mian (牛肉荞面), with warm red-braised beef and chili oil topping the cold noodles.
Hong shao niu rou mian: 红烧牛肉面
The Chengdu version of the ubiquitous beef noodle soup is, of course, laced with chili oil, though it’s not usually terribly spicy. The mellow heat lets you appreciate the other seasonings that go into making the red-braised chunks of beef (shank is common, but other long-cooking cuts aren’t unusual), such as ginger, garlic, Sichuan bean sauce, and especially star anise.
Pugai mian: 铺盖面
Pugai means bedspread, a reference to the amazing size of this dish’s noodles. At a pugai mian restaurant, you might see up to three workers perched around a table, pulling at a sheet of flour draped over a metal bowl. Each person tears a section and then stretches it into a large rectangle before tossing it into boiling water. You can get these noodles in a simple clear broth with shreds of chicken and wandou (peas), but better is the version with a red broth containing bell peppers, chili peppers, green onions, and chicken gizzards—a crunchy contrast to the silky, chewy noodles.
Pai gu mian: 排骨面
Pai gu mian is named for the bite-sized pork ribs that are quick-fried in ginger, garlic and oil then further cooked with soy sauce, star anise and vinegar. Add water, and this sauce becomes the broth that’s spooned with the ribs on noodles. At noodle heaven restaurant Chun Yang Guang, the house specialty is yu xiang pai gu mian (鱼香排骨面): fish-fragrant sparerib noodles. Replicating the flavors used in cooking fish, this dish features prominent notes of ginger, garlic, green onions and most notably pickled chilis.
Noodles That Might Not Be Noodles, Depending on Whom You Ask
Liang fen: 凉粉
In Chengdu, there’s a whole category of liang fen: gelatinous mixtures made from various starches (like rice, mung bean, and sweet potato) that are formed into noodle shapes. One common dish is suan la fen (酸辣粉), where the sweet-potato starch noodles come in a balanced broth of chili oil and vinegar, with roasted soybeans or peanuts, and sometimes pickled mustard stems to add texture. Another is fei chang fen (肥肠粉): sweet-potato starch noodles with pork intestines, garnished with bean sprouts, green onions, chili oil, vinegar, and perhaps peanuts.
For both of these fen dishes, you might see your cook pound the starch “batter” through a sieve, its holes creating noodles that drop directly into boiling water. They’re engagingly elastic. The fen that’s perhaps most popular in the West is ma yi shang shu (蚂蚁上树). Made with reconstituted mung-bean threads (dong fen, 冬粉), this dish gets its name because the bits of minced pork sticking to the noodle strands (branches) look like “ants on a tree.”