My first encounter with Dan Dan Mian ("Tan Tan Noodles") was at Szechuan Chongqing's former East Vancouver location on Broadway at Victoria two or three decades ago. The lovely, smooth, and sesame/peanutty sauce was a revelation to (at the time) a young foodie. It wasn't my first encounter with Sichuan Chinese food, but it was the first time I really noticed the difference - It sure didn't taste like the Chinese food I had been eating. Fast forward to today - after my travels through Asia and parts of China which woke up the latent chowhound in me - I'm back on a search for the best Dan Dan Mian in town.
The city of Chengdu in Sichuan, China is the ultimate source this dish. There, they do not make this peanutty concoction. I have come to realize that the Dan Dan I had been eating at Szechuan Chongqing was of a familiar but "inauthentic" variety. This peanutty version probably evolved outside Sichuan - perhaps in Hong Kong or Taiwan then later travelled North America (perhaps around the time of Nixon's visit to China).
In Chengdu, the noodles most often sit on top of a blazing hot of mixture of dark vinegar, soya, chile, sesame oil, Sichuan peppercorns, pickled mustard greens, and a few other things. All the Dan Dan carts in Chengdu serve variations of this theme...with each purveyor adding their own spin to the dish. The toppings often consist of ground or slivered pork fried till crisp with garlic...and/or crushed, toasted dried soybeans..and very rarely (but not unheard of) toasted peanuts to provide textural contrast...sometimes blanched greens similar to spinach (eg amaranth or water convulvus) are added to provide colour.
The eminent Sichuan gastro-anthropoligist (is that even a word?) Fuschia Dunlop attempts to codify a "proper" Dan Dan Mian in her book 'Land of Plenty' (called 'Sichuan Cookery in some parts of the world). She lists two versions - one is a simple "Traditional Dan Dan" made with a sesame chili oil, dark vinegar, pickle mustard, sichuan peppercorn base. The other - which she identifies as "Xie Laoban's Dan Dan" (named after an influential cook who plied his trade near Sichuan University) - is similar to the traditional version...with the notable difference of the addition of sesame paste to the sauce which thickened it. This version is probably the inspiration of the peanutty version that we in the West are most familiar. Thus we have three general versions.
OK...now that my long-winded preamble is out of the way....which is the best Dan Dan Mian in Vancouver? I am reluctant to provide a winner...none of the Dan Dan I have had here have come close enough to the ones I have experienced in China to be declared "champion". Perhaps Dan Dan Mian just tastes better when you are sitting on your backpack on the side of an alley in Chengdu.
I have not tried the ALL of Dan Dan in Vancouver, of course. I will provide a list of ones I like, FWIW:
-The "original" one at Lin Fine Chinese (which sadly I believe they no longer make). They used to use a toasted (dark) sesame paste that made it unique and delicious. Maybe if you ask...they will make it again.
-The "traditional" Dan Dan at Szechuan House in Burnaby - simple and authentic tasting
-The black sesame topped Dan Dan at Northern Delicacies in Richmond.
-The toasted sesame paste Dan Dan at The Place
-The familiar tasting peanutty-sesame Dan Dan at Lin's (The Dan Dan they serve currently).
Some pics -- http://picasaweb.google.ca/gustibus.m...
If you have a particular favorite, please post here!