zha jiang mian

I celebrated my third birthday with a big steaming bowl of noodles, which I so coveted. With the bowl at the edge of the table and my mouth strategically placed, I shoveled every last bit of noodle and sauce into that vast cavernous hole. Yea, I was a fat and happy 3 year old, with a wicked bowl cut. And I loved zha jiang mian, a dish that to this day, I still turn to for comfort and memories of my grandfather's kitchen. It's a very traditional noodle dish from Northern China, consisting of wheat noodles covered in a thick sauce of ground pork, garlic, and fermented bean paste. Usually fresh julienned carrot and cucumber is piled on top for crunch. This dish is like the Chinese equivalent of mac and cheese, easy and cheap to make, filling and hearty, and just as culturally significant.

Zha jiang mian literally means "fried sauce noodles." That's because when the sauce is cooked, the bean paste is added to a generous amount of sizzling peanut oil at the bottom of the wok. The kind I grew up with was brown in color, but other versions use yellow bean paste. The Korean version, ja jang myeon, was adapted from the Chinese, and though it sounds exactly the same, it uses many different ingredients. The bean paste is roasted and fermented, lending it a dark brown, almost black-ish color. Diced zucchini and onion is usually added to the sauce, and instead of ground pork, squid and clams are oftentimes used.

In Baltimore, there are no Chinese restaurants that offer up ja jiang mian, but you can find the Korean version at Nam Kang (2126 Maryland Ave.). You can probably get it at Lotte Plaza too, at their small eatery inside the store.

Many vegetarian versions of the sauce can be made, by replacing the pork with scrambled egg. You can add any leftover diced veggies you want, that is the beauty of this dish.

Zha Jiang Mian
yields 2 cups of sauce

Oriental style noodles (long thin white noodles, with wheat flour, water and salt listed as the only ingredients)

4 Tbsp chunjang (Korean fermented black bean paste)
1/3 lb. ground pork
1 Tbsp Shaoxing rice cooking wine
1 small onion, diced
1 small zucchini, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp minced ginger

julienned carrot and cucumber

1. In a large pot or wok, heat up 1 Tbsp oil, and add ground pork. Stir to break up the meat into small pieces, and cook through, adding cooking wine and half the garlic. Push to one side of the pot and add in the diced onion, zucchini, garlic and ginger. Stirfry all ingredients for 5-10 min until onions and meat start to brown up nicely.

2. Stir in the bean paste and enough water to make a sauce of thin consistency (1/2 cup). Add the sugar. Simmer for 5-10 min until the sauce has thickened up.

3. Meanwhile, cook the noodles according to the package label, usually 5-6 min in boiling water.

4. To serve**, heap the noodles in a bowl and ladle the sauce overtop. Garnish with carrots and cucumber.

**Traditionally, many Chinese like to drizzle on top Chinese rice vinegar, call Chinkiang Vinegar. It is dark, like balsamic