Eating dan dan noodles is practically culinary S&M. It hurts so good. My first experience with the creamy and spicy Szechuan dish was at Mary Chung’s in Central Square, Cambridge. Since that day, I’ve tried to replicate the impressive textural and flavor balance they achieve that keeps you coming back for more, bite after bite. At first taste, the sweet creaminess of tahini and peanut butter coating the noodles and chicken is a proverbial blanket for your mouth. You’re lulled into a sense of comfort and calm but then, an intense heat from chili peppers takes over your taste buds and the only way to stop the sharp stinging is to sooth them with another bite of the nutty sauce. It’s a vicious yet exhilarating cycle of pleasure and pain.
Dan Dan Noodles with Shredded Chicken
1½ pounds soba or fresh lo mein noodle
3 tablespoons canola oil
3 chicken breasts
1, 3-inch piece ginger, peeled and shredded on a box grater
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon sambal olek
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
¼ cup tahini
¼ cup creamy peanut butter
½ fresno chili, seeded and minced
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ bunch scallion, sliced thinly
Cook soba or lo mein noodles according to the package directions. Drain the noodles in a colander then rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. In a large bowl, toss the noodles with canola oil.
Preheat an oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place chicken breasts in a medium braising pot or sauce pot with the grated ginger, vegetable or chicken stock, and ¼ cup sambal olek. Cover the pot with parchment paper or foil, then a heavy lid. Cook in the oven until very tender and shreddable, about 1½ hours. Remove chicken and reserve the braising liquid.
Meanwhile, place the red wine vinegar, soy sauce, tahini, peanut butter, and fresno chili in a blender or food processor. Puree until smooth then add up to 2 cups of braising liquid to thin the sauce to a loose but not watery consistency.
Taste and season the sauce with salt, pepper, and remaining 1 tablespoon sambal until it is spiced according to your palate. Place sauce in the braising pot and keep warm over very low heat.
Shred the chicken breasts with two forks and transfer the shreds to a medium bowl. Toss to coat with ¼ of the sauce.
Toss the noodles with the remaining warm sauce and transfer to a large platter or serving bowl. Top the noodles with the shredded chicken and a garnish of sliced scallion.