If you recall an earlier post of mine, some of the greatest noodles in the world are also the simplest. Served cold and dressed up with the right combination of chili, sesame and soy sauce, they can be mind meltingly good.
I made a weekend trip to Chengdu last month to visit my grandparents and mother who was in town. My mother loves to eat almost as much as me, and has sharp taste buds that can tell you instantly if a dish is missing a pinch of sugar or a dash of vinegar. Over the years I’ve found that my taste preferences have become more and more akin to hers, with newfound appreciation for things like salted duck eggs and pickled radishes on homemade congee for breakfast. I imagine she gets her tastes from her mother as well.
My mother was born in Chengdu but her parents migrated from Jiangsu province, a small city called Zhenjiang that is famous for fragrant black vinegar. Her own cooking has often been at the crossroads of sweet and mellow Huaiyang cuisine and the strong flavour of Sichuan’s spices.
These days she makes trips to Chengdu from time to time to visit her highschool and college classmates, and in an attempt to relive golden years, they scour city for food and while away the hours in Chengdu’s many teahouses and bamboo gardens.
She usually has a pulse on good food in the city, so I turned to her for tips on what to eat on this trip. Without hesitation she answered, “your grandmother’s cold noodles”. They are incredible, she said, refreshing in the August heat, and will be waiting for me when I arrived from the airport.
I made sure my grandmother didn’t assemble the ingredients until after I arrived, so I could capture the recipe and steps. The flavours were explosive, yet so simple to assemble. So much better than anything I could imagine getting in a restaurant. In fact, I stayed in the entire weekend and cooked with my grandmother. We got the freshest ingredients from farmers in the neighbourhood, I learned a few new dishes, and we had congee with (home made!) duck eggs and pickles every morning.
A perfect Chengdu weekend.
Here’s the recipe for her cold sesame noodles:
These are best mixed in individual portions. It’s a hit at potlucks, dinner parties, and easy super easy to assemble. You’ll need a precooked, chilled batch of alkaline noodles. You can buy these fresh in grocery stores, but if you have a pasta maker, do try your hand at Harold McGee’s alkaline noodle recipe.
1 big bowl of alkaline noodles (see my picture for approx. amount)
1 tsp sesame oil or to taste
1 tsp red chili oil – can buy in stores or make your own by heating oil and soaking ground chili flakes overnight
dash of huajiao (sichuan peppercorn) oil – can buy in stores or soak crushed peppercorns in heated oil for the same effect
1/2 tsp mushroom soy sauce for colour
1 1/2 tsp light soy sauce or to taste
2 tsp black vinegar or to taste
1 clove mashed garlic
1 bunch chopped spring onion
bunch bean sprouts for crunch
1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
Mix everything together, and voila.