My cravings don't usually inspire decisive culinary action — so I knew I'd stumbled onto something rich the second after my first bite of zha jiang mian.
Originating in northern China and considered a home cook's staple in the cuisine of Beijing, there's not a lot to zha jiang mian, which translates in Mandarin to "fried sauce noodles" but is touted on menus as "Noodle with Pork Soy Sauce" at Chinatown haunts like Nan Zhou (927 Race St.) and the newer, similar Yummy Lan Zhou (131 N. 10th St.). Aside from base flavors like white onion, garlic and scallion, it's really nothing more than ground pork and soybean paste stewed into a meat sauce and ladled over noodles. And yet, just like a lovingly executed Italian bolognese has the means to crawl into your headspace and wrap your brain in a blissful electric blanket, it's a dish with the ability to become so much more than the sum of its humble parts. In other words, it's easy to fuck up if you're not careful.
Aside from the rudimentary ground pork (I used leftover pork butt I had in my freezer), the only thing you've really got to worry about when cooking zha jiang mian is the bean paste. Or in my case, bean pastes — I combined two, both made by the Union Foods brand carried in all Asian markets, to poke that proper balance of spicy, sweet and vegetal-funky right in its eye. The first variety, in the red jar: regular bean paste, which looks, smells and tastes a lot like hoisin. The second, in the orange jar: hot broad bean paste, which looks, smells and tastes a lot like fermented napalm.
It is serious stuff on its own, but combined with the non-deathly-hallows red jar stuff, it mellows without wussing out completely. My own additions of brown sugar, raw sprouts and diced cucumber, the latter ingredient cooking in the sauce to a glassy translucency, also tip the scales back toward chopstick bliss. Variations on this dish are endless, meaning you'll have to experiment to make your Beijing bolognese your own.