Little Fatty’s zhajiang mian

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Chef David Kuo (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I’ve often thought about the provenance of zhajiang mian and its infinite variations, following a food coma-induced meal of slurpy noodles laden with flavorful sauces and fresh vegetables. There’s speculation as to the exact origins of this deeply satisfying carb load. Some sources point to the capital city of Beijing; others claim its rightful place among the ranks of Shandong cuisine, which is said to have influenced the flavors and palates of neighboring provinces and the imperial chefs. The chewy thick mian , or noodles, are made from wheat flour and, in the northern region of China, are topped with dark, savory sauces made from salty fermented soybeans. But you don’t have to go far to find Chengdu-style bowls of noodles slicked red with spicy chile oil and healthy sprinklings of Sichuan peppercorns. Certainly not for the faint of heart!

Just off the coast of China, the Taiwanese incorporate tian miang jiang, or “sweet flour sauce,” into their zhajiang, which means “fried paste.” Chef David Kuo‘s version at Little Fatty in Mar Vista, California, is a mish-mash of the Taiwanese and Korean styles. Yes, Koreans also swear by their own version of jjajyangmyun, which uses chunjang, a black bean paste made from roasted soybeans which gives it a slightly sweeter flavor than its Chinese relative. Kuo admits, “To be honest, I chose to put zhajiang mian on the menu at Little Fatty because I could never find a good version I liked to eat … I make kind of a hybrid at the restaurant using Korean fermented black bean paste and Taiwanese sweet flour sauce.”

Kuo builds the flavors of his zhajiang using the same techniques he uses to prepare an Italian bolognese sauce. The onions and pork are slowly browned over low heat for at least an hour to develop their rich flavors. He then adds the black bean paste and tian mian jiang to the pan to further caramelize the pork and onions, enhancing the umami. The fresh wheat noodles are boiled until al denté. Kuo then adds the sauce and tops the dish off with fresh cucumber ribbons, pickled julienned carrots and red chiles to balance  the richness of the sauce. It’s a perfect “juxtaposition of the cold, crunchy vegetables and hot, rich pork sauce and noodles.”