What is zhajiangmian?
Zhajiangmian (which literally translates to "fried sauce noodles" in Mandarin) is a popular noodle dish topped with a savory and hearty meat sauce that originated in Beijing. In recent years here in the US, the Korean adaptation, jajangmyeon, has been more trendy and popular -- but fewer people know about the original zhajiangmian! It gets its "fried sauce" name because the two sauces used, sweet bean sauce and soybean sauce, are cooked in the pan to deepen its flavors before incorporating it with the rest of the ingredients.
What's the difference between Chinese zhajiangmian and Korean jajangmyeon?
Both are delicious in their own ways: jajangmyeon is typically made with a deep-roasted black bean sauce, while the Beijing-style zhajiangmian is traditionally made with sweet bean sauce and/or soybean sauce (although there are variations here as well)! I also find jajangmyeon to be a sweeter dish overall, and its sauce is more glossy and typically consists of cubed pork belly and veggies like zucchini, onion, and sometimes mushrooms. Zhajiangmian on the other hand, typically has a more savory flavor with a slight sweetness, uses minced pork (vs larger pieces), and doesn't often include veggies like zucchini (though again, there are many versions out there, and you can always customize the dish to your liking)! Both use wheat noodles and are usually topped with fresh veggies like carrots or cucumber.
How I learned about zhajiangmian, a northern-Chinese dish (even though I'm Cantonese)
Yi dian dian (“a little bit”) — the only response I have when people ask if I can speak Mandarin.
My parents are from Guangdong, so I grew up speaking Cantonese. My first exposure to Mandarin was my dad’s friend from Beijing, who visited us once a year. I remember not being able to communicate, let alone understand, anything he was saying, despite it sounding incredibly similar to my native language. All I could do was smile and nod when they’d gesture at me.
Despite not being able to communicate with him, there was one thing I’d look forward to during his visits — the one dish he’d cook every time: zha jiang mian, whose literal translation is “fried sauce noodles.” It was nothing like I’ve had before: A sweet, robust sauce combined with ground nuggets of pork and fresh aromatics to top a bowl of fresh noodles. Imagine a thick bolognese, but with deeper, more fragrant flavors. I like adding shiitake mushroom to mine to add another layer of texture and flavor to the sauce.
This memory always reminds me that words are not our only form of communication. A universal language exists between us when we share good food together, whether it’s with our family, friends, or someone you barely know. Words aren’t necessary when you come back with a clean bowl and a request for seconds.
Hope you enjoy as much as I do 🙂
Notes / FAQs:
What kind of noodles should I use?
Any kind of dry or fresh wheat noodle! I really like the Mizuho brand from 99 Ranch. You need noodles that can hold up to the thick sauce, so any wheat noodle that isn’t too thin would go great with this recipe.
I’m trying to eat less meat! Can I use meat substitute?
Yes! I made this with Beyond meat recently, and it turned out really well. The texture comes out slightly “wetter” and actually incorporates nicely into the noodles. You can also try making this with all mushroom, or a mixture of mushroom and tofu.
I can’t find these sauces in the supermarket, can I substitute something else?
It definitely won’t be the same, and this is just what I think but haven’t yet tried: miso paste should make a good sub for soybean paste, and hoisin could sub for sweet bean paste. I’ll try experimenting and will come up with a definitive answer!
Zhajiangmian (Beijing-style fried sauce noodles)
- 3-4 portions dry or fresh wheat noodles
- 8 oz ground pork 15-20% fat
- 4-5 dried or fresh shiitake mushrooms
- 1 medium shallot or ¼ of an onion
- 4-6 cloves garlic
- 1 inch knob of ginger
- 1.5 tablespoon sweet bean sauce
- 1 tablespoon soybean sauce or paste
- 1.5 cups rehydrated mushroom liquid, chicken or veggie broth, or water
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing cooking wine (Chinese cooking wine)
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil (i.e. avocado, canola, vegetable)
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- ¼ cup water (room temp or cold)
- 2 Persian cucumbers
- ½ medium carrot
- scallions (optional)
- chili oil (optional)
Prepare the ingredients
- If using dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrate them in 2 cups of water for 30 mins.4-5 dried or fresh shiitake mushrooms
- Meanwhile, prep your other ingredients: slice your cucumbers and carrots into thin, long strips. Then prep all your aromatics: mince your garlic, ginger, and shallot or onion. Once shiitake mushrooms are rehydrated, remove tough stems, then dice into small (about ½ inch) chunks.4-6 cloves garlic, 1 inch knob of ginger, 2 Persian cucumbers, ½ medium carrot, 1 medium shallot
- In a bowl, mix your cornstarch slurry with room temp or cold water. Set aside.
Make the sauce
- Heat up a skillet or wok to medium heat, and add 1 tablespoon of oil.1 tablespoon neutral oil
- Add your aromatics: garlic, ginger, and shallot, and cook until fragrant, or about 1 min.4-6 cloves garlic, 1 inch knob of ginger, 1 medium shallot
- Add your ground pork, break it up into smaller pieces, and spread it out across the pan. Once there’s no more pink left in the pork, add the diced shiitake mushrooms and Shaoxing wine. Mix well.8 oz ground pork, 4-5 dried or fresh shiitake mushrooms, 1 tablespoon Shaoxing cooking wine
- Once the ground pork looks golden brown, use your spatula to push the pork to the sides of the pan to form a hole in the middle. Add your sweet bean sauce and soy bean sauce (it should sizzle!) and let cook for 1 minute. This helps bring out and deepen the flavors of the sauces.1.5 tablespoon sweet bean sauce, 1 tablespoon soybean sauce or paste
- Mix the sauce with the pork. Add 1 ½ cups of the rehydrated shiitake mushroom liquid (or water) and stir. Let the sauce simmer for a minute.1.5 cups rehydrated mushroom liquid, chicken or veggie broth, or water
- Mix any settled cornstarch and add the slurry to thicken the sauce. Cook and stir until the sauce thickens — this should only take a minute or so. Turn off the heat, and get ready to cook your noodles.1 tablespoon cornstarch, ¼ cup water
Cook the noodles and assemble
- If you have 2 working stove tops, you can always cook your noodles at the same time as you’re cooking the ground pork sauce.
- Bring a pot of water to boil, and cook your wheat noodles according to the package instructions. Fresh noodles typically only take several minutes, while dry noodles might take about 7-10 minutes. Optionally, to keep the noodles extra chewy when they’re done cooking, rinse them in cold running water.3-4 portions dry or fresh wheat noodles
- Place the noodles into your bowls. Top the noodles with a good amount of ground pork sauce, some crunchy cucumbers and carrots, hot chili oil (if using), and green onion. Mix it all up, and enjoy!½ medium carrot, scallions, chili oil, 2 Persian cucumbers