Low-carb dan dan noodles! It can be done. Each slurp is teeming with the spicy-savory flavor that’s nearly physical in its K.O., and each bite is a map of textures – there’s springy-chewy al dente, luscious juiciness, a bit of crisp snappy crunch. Not only do almond flour egg noodles and spiralized cucumber take down the empty carb count significantly here, they’re also remarkably effective at soaking up the blistering chili oil and rendered pork fat that make up the base of the sauce.
Wait… oil? Fat? What?! Okay, I never said this recipe was entirely virtuous, did I?
I don’t think that the Chinese population is quite as susceptible to diet fads as we are here in the US, but for the lone Chinese paleo pioneer out there, this might just do the trick. “Might”, because I don’t really know where preserved ya cai fit in, if at all, in the caveman universe. Were our hominid ancestors pickling the leaves and stems they had foraged? I doubt it. Their loss; without the subtle fermented bite of ya cai mixed into the ground pork, dan dan noodles fall a little short of their usual complex glory. Also critical is the use of high quality chili oil. I made my own small batch, eyes and nose smarting from the spiciness that permeated the air as aggressively as it did the searing hot oil. It was well worth it, though, and after a few days of letting the flavors develop I was rewarded by a red lava-like stream. This oil joins forces with doubanjiang for even more heat, a blend of spices for extra sharpness, sesame paste for fragrance, and finally gets tempered by the stock-braised pork and ya cai.
Against such a vivid tapestry of spice and seasoning, the noodles need to be a strong vehicle for taste. I’ve tested a few low-carb noodles, and Cappello’s almond flour noodles are a clear standout. Unlike the other options out there, they don’t compromise texture in the slightest. Shirataki noodles are a bit flimsy and too light to be truly satisfying; spiralized vegetables have a tendency to get soggy and weep into your plate. Neither have the robustness to stand up to the dan dan sauce onslaught solo. The Cappello’s almond flour noodles, in contrast, are essentially indistinguishable from the flour-based alternative and actually do a much more impressive job of soaking up the oil.
However, they’re not cheap - $15 a batch, or $3-$4 a serving! It must be a modern day economic law that if you want to be thin, your wallet will get thinner first. At least the nice thing about the health trend of “know what you eat” is that ingredient lists are nice and short, all components easily found in the recipe aisle – so replicating this almond flour noodle becomes a fairly feasible project. Til then, Cappello’s, you win… and you have the addictiveness of dan dan noodles to thank.
Dan Dan Noodles Recipe (serves 3 hungry people)
Ingredients: meat mixture
- 1/4 lb of fatty ground pork
- 1 tbsp rice wine
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 scallion, chopped finely
- 1 clove of garlic, sliced
- 1/2 inches of ginger, sliced
- 1/4 cup of ya cai (pickled mustard greens)
- 1/2 cup of chicken stock
Ingredients: dan dan sauce
- 4 tbsp of red Sichuan chili oil, more to taste (recipe below - make 2-3 days in advance)
- 3 tbsp doubanjiang
- 2 tbsp of sesame paste (can be made by grinding sesame seeds with sesame oil)
- 1 tsp soy sauce
- 1 tsp Chingkiang vinegar
- 1 tbsp of Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 tsp five spice powder
- 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 1 large cucumber, spiralized
- 9 oz almond flour noodles
- Crushed roasted peanuts, to garnish (optional)
Prepare the meat mixture: heat oil over high heat until shimmering, and fry the scallion, garlic and ginger until fragrant - about one minute. Add in the pork, breaking it up in the pan. When it begins to brown, add the rice wine and soy sauces. When completely browned, pour in the chicken stock and add ya cai, continuing to heat on high until the chicken stock is bubbling. Turn down the heat to low or medium low and maintain a very gentle simmer while you prepare the other components.
Make the dan dan sauce: lightly toast the peppercorns over medium heat until fragrant, then add the chili oil and crank the heat to high. Add in the five spice, doubanjiang, and sesame paste, and stir well to combine and continue stir-frying for 1 minute. Add in remaining ingredients and let simmer on medium for an additional 2 minutes.
Prepare the noodles: Add the noodles to lightly salted boiling water and let cook for 60-90 seconds. Drain immediately and combine with the spiralized cucumbers.
Serve: Combine the meat mixture, dan dan sauce, and noodles/cucumbers. Garnish with crushed roasted peanuts and mix. Leftovers will taste great - noodles stay fresh for another day or two in the fridge, but may get soggy afterward.
Chili Oil Recipe
- 1/2 cup peanut oil
- 1/2 tbsp of Szechuan peppercorns, more to taste
- 1/4 cup of shredded red dried chili peppers and seeds or 1/4 cup of red chili flakes, more to taste
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 inch ginger, sliced
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 1-2 star anise
- 1 clove
Dry fry the peppercorns, chili peppers/flakes, and cumin over low to medium-low heat, until very fragrant. Transfer to a small lidded jar.
Add oil, ginger, garlic, star anise, and clove to a pan and heat over medium heat until very shimmery and slightly smoking; a metal saucepan works best for this. This may take 5+ minutes or so. If using an instant-read thermometer, heat to around 210 degrees.
Carefully pour the hot oil mixture over the toasted spices. It should foam up quite aggressively and smell quite strong. Remove the ginger and garlic. Let the jar come to room temperature, then refrigerate for 2-3 days to let the flavors develop.