Zha jiang mian
Zha jiang mian
Image: Yang Zhao

Zha jiang mian — translated directly as “fried sauce noodles”, is an iconic Beijing home-cooked and street-style dish. I read somewhere that if you ask anybody in Beijing about where to find the best zha jiang mian in the city, the only answer you’ll get is “at my home”.

It is hard to pinpoint what makes the best zha jiang mian: the secret ingredient seems to differ from home to home. Perhaps, the secret ingredient is “home”. My sensory memory takes me to a winter holiday when I tagged along with my father while he was on a business trip to Beijing. I was about 10, the bone-chilling, dry winter, much like Johannesburg, imprinted strongly. Along with bells and yells of people selling zha jiang mian streetside, each vendor claiming theirs to be the most authentic, maybe “most authentically their own”? Perhaps zha jiang mian is to Beijing is what Bolognese is to Bologna?

Anyone has seen the inside of my fridge knows that I love my pickles, condiments and sauces. I like to prepare a bunch of preserved foods in various flavours, so I can mix and match these flavours with my plain noodles or rice. This “fried sauce” lives in my fridge too; it can take a bit of time to prepare, about 1.5 hours cooking time, but you can prepare a batch and store it for up to 10 days — though it has never lasted for 10 days in my fridge! I love fresh cucumber and carrots with zha jiang mian, which is the traditional way of eating it. There’s much wisdom in the necessity of pairing with these vegetables, to cut through the savouriness and richness of the sauce. Sliced radish are often welcomed in this collaboration too. Here’s to celebrating more of what brings us “home”. 

This zha jiang mian recipe is also “authentically my own”. I chose pork mince instead of pork belly to reduce the cooking time from 1.5 hrs to 40 min.

Ingredients:

400g ground pork mince (traditionally, finely diced pork belly is preferred but cooking time will increase to 1.5 hrs. With mince, this recipe will take about 40 minutes at most)

2 tsp ginger, finely chopped

2 tsp garlic, finely chopped

5 medium-sized shiitake mushrooms, diced

2 tbs Shaoxing wine

3 tbs ground bean sauce

  • Ground bean sauce is made of fermented yellow soy beans
  • Salty and slightly sweet
  • Find it at your local Asian grocer, or you can show shop assistant these characters 黄豆酱; they should be able help you.

2 tbs Sweet bean sauce or tian mian jiang

  • Thick, dark brown sauce made from fermented wheat flour, sugar and salt
  • More sweet than salty
  • Find it at your local Asian grocer, or you can show shop assistant these characters 甜面酱; they should be able to help you.
  • You can use hoisin sauce instead, although it could be blasphemy to the purists!

2 tsp sugar

Ground bean sauce.
Ground bean sauce.
Image: Yang Zhao

Method:

  1. Heat oil in pan, add ginger and garlic, fry for about 2 minutes
  2. Add mince and Shaoxing wine, stir for 2 minutes then add diced shiitake mushrooms, fry for another 3 minutes
  3. Add ground bean sauce and sweet bean sauce. Note: if you find that the quantity indicated above for the sauces not enough to coat your mince, then increase; as long as the ratio of ground bean sauce to sweet bean sauce is 3:2, you’re good to go.
  4. Cook on medium to low heat for about 20 minutes, check often and stir in sugar.
  5. Cook for another 10 minutes then turn heat off, let it cool and put into jar for storage. Note: the fattier the pork, the better it’ll be preserved, as oil preserves food.
  6. Assemble, cook noodles, spoonful of zha jiang, julienned cucumber and carrot. Et voila! Serve and enjoy!
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