As a kid, Josh Ku often went to Taiwanese restaurants in Flushing, Queens. A highlight of these family trips was zhajiangmian — a bowl of thick, chewy fresh wheat noodles covered in a savory-sweet pork-studded gravy and showered with chilled cucumber shards. Tossed together, the noodles were not soupy but not dry, hot yet cool, texturally all over the place, and impossible to stop slurping.
Years later, when Ku opened Win Son, a Taiwanese American restaurant in Brooklyn’s East Williamsburg, he put lamb zhajiangmian on the menu. Consisting of thick noodles, gamey lamb, and a sauce accented with spices like cumin and mint, it was nothing anyone had ever seen before, but that was perhaps the point. Ku and Trigg Brown, Win Son’s co-owner and chef, ran the dish through an American lens, reinventing the classic for a new audience in a new place.
This type of localized adaptation is something that has characterized zhajiangmian throughout its history. Originally from northern China, the specialty has been avidly embraced in Beijing, Korea (where it’s known as jjajangmyeon), Japan (as jajamen), Sichuan province, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. While conventional wisdom holds that the dish originated in Beijing, Carolyn Phillips, the author of All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China, believes that it got its start in homes and small towns in Northeast China before it became popular in China’s capital. “It’s very possible that it’s something created by the Hui Muslims — they created so many of North China’s greatest noodle dishes and bread dishes and they really don’t get enough credit for it,” Phillips says.
Although zhajiangmian’s toppings, additional ingredients, and other modifications vary according to location (as well as from household to household and noodle stand to noodle stand), its basic foundation remains consistent: It’s essentially noodles topped with a quickly simmered meat sauce whose intensely savory flavor comes from a brown, paste-like sauce called tianmianjiang, or “sweet wheat sauce” (often translated on jars as “sweet bean sauce”). Cucumber slivers are also a compulsory garnish, and most chefs prefer to use hefty, ideally fresh wheat noodles that hold up well in the rich sauce. With a thicker sauce than dan dan noodles and no trace of spiciness, zhajiangmian has often been compared to spaghetti Bolognese. But once you have all of the ingredients, zhajiangmian is much less time-consuming to prepare.
“It’s savory, but the sauce is so rich with sweetness and a bunch of other flavors like umami,” says Frankie Gaw, author of First Generation: Recipes from My Taiwanese-American Home. “It almost reminds me of mole, which has a similarly deep flavor profile.”
Growing up, Gaw loved the zhajiangmian his grandmother prepared whenever his family visited her in Memphis. She would add finely chopped shiitake mushrooms to the ground pork for a meat-and-mushroom base, with the spongy mushrooms absorbing the complex flavors of the sauce. This is not too uncommon among renditions of zhajiangmian found in Taiwanese households; the addition of mushrooms allows you to cut down on the amount of meat, which is economical (and some might say healthful). Nodding to his grandmother, Gaw’s own recipe for zhajiangmian — or “Hand-Cut Noodles with Minced Pork Sauce,” as it appears in his cookbook — calls for ⅓ cup shiitakes to ½ pound of ground pork. And in addition to tianmianjiang, Gaw uses almond soy glaze, a separate recipe he created from soy sauce, almond butter, maple syrup, rice vinegar, and sesame oil. He likes to use it in place of hoisin sauce, or on “anything that needs bold depth of flavor.”
Phillips includes a recipe for zhajiangmian in All Under Heaven that incorporates finely chopped eggplant into the sauce, along with ground pork. She credits this idea to Liang Shih-Chiu, an author, translator, and Beijing native who wrote an essay on noodles describing the addition of eggplant to zhajiangmian. Phillips, who lived in Taiwan for a decade, says the eggplant practically melts into the sauce, helping to balance its often overpowering saltiness.
Finely cubed dry tofu is also sometimes used in zhajiangmian’s sauce. This is the version served at the New York City Taiwanese restaurant Ho Foods, whose owner Rich Ho describes his spin on the dish as “classic mom-style zha jiang noodles” (“mian” means wheat or wheat-based noodles). In addition to cucumber, Ho’s zhajiangmian is garnished with slivered tamagoyaki, or rolled egg, a choice that reflects the dish’s seemingly endless possibilities.
In Taiwan, it’s not uncommon to find zhajiangmian with extra toppings like slivered carrots, blanched greens, or green soybeans (edamame). Some chefs might use chopped pork instead of ground, and yellow soybean paste, or gan huangjiang, in addition to tianmianjiang. Chopped scallions and/or cilantro and crispy fried shallots might also be used as garnish. Brown, the chef at Win Son, says that Taiwanese versions of zhajiangmian tend to have a “cleaner” or more refreshing flavor profile than those in other regions; the first types of zhajiangmian he ever tasted were actually heavier versions of jjajangmyeon that he ate at Korean restaurants with his wife’s family. (Jjajangmyeon sometimes incorporates seafood like squid and shrimp; some cooks might use beef instead of pork for their zhajiangmian.) Brown and Ku’s lamb version appears in their new cookbook, Win Son Presents: A Taiwanese American Cookbook.
Whatever’s in or on top of it, optics play a big role in zhajiangmian’s appeal. The pale noodles peeking out from a thick mound of sauce. The julienned cucumbers on one side. Maybe a pile of scallions on another. The arrangements are fertile ground for chefs’ design sensibilities.
“The Chinese really work these things out well — the aesthetics are just extraordinary,” says Phillips.
Phillips has thought a lot about zhajiangmian, and in the course of her years of research she’s come up with an alternate theory about its name. You see, zhajiangmian, or 炸醬麵, directly translates to “fried sauce noodles,” which is why you’ll often see it called that in English. But the “fried” here refers to deep-fried, whereas the sauce for zhajiangmian is just pan-fried. But in Northeast China the dish is called zajiangmian, or 雜醬麵, which translates to “mixed sauce noodles.” So Phillips believes that the two names were mixed up at some point, since “za” and “zha” sound similar.
Another confusing translation element is the sweet wheat/sweet bean sauce, which we’ll just call tianmianjiang, its Chinese romanization rather than translation. This sauce is essential to zhajiangmian in same the way that doubanjiang is to mapo tofu, or doenjang is to doenjang jjigae. It’s unclear why it’s so often translated to English as “sweet bean sauce,” since “mian” clearly translates to “wheat” rather than “bean.”
One possibility is there are many similar sauces made with fermented beans, like the aforementioned doubanjiang and doenjang. But tianmianjiang is made with fermented wheat, not beans, as labels will tell you. And it’s traditionally made from fermented mantou, the Chinese steamed wheat bun. Phillips learned the “recipe” for the sauce from an elderly man from Shandong province. “He said you get the mantou wet and you let them mold in a container and then the mold breaks down the wheat,” she says. She tried this herself many years ago, sticking some wet buns in a jar and watching as they got fuzzy and grey. “Then they kind of collapsed and turned into this dark brown and liquidy paste,” she says. “It’s just like any other fermentation, it’s totally gross and turns into something delicious.”
Fortunately, there are other ways to get tianmianjiang ready for your zhajiangmian than letting buns rot for weeks — although if you’ve read this far, don’t let me discourage you from trying out the jar-mold technique. For those who would rather buy tianmianjiang, you can find it online at marketplaces like the Mala Market, Weee, and Amazon.
Procuring just this ingredient will probably be the most taxing thing about making zhajiangmian. After that, it’s almost a Hamburger Helper add-on for ground meat and noodles. But as all its variations prove, zhajiangmian can be a flexible formula, ready to adapt to your whims or fancy. However it bends, it’s bound to be delicious. Add it to your Lunar New Year spread — where any dishes involving long noodles are a must — or whip it up on a weeknight for one.
Zhajiangmian (Noodles with Minced Pork and Sweet Bean Sauce) Recipe
Makes 4 to 6 servings
This recipe has been adapted from my 2015 cookbook The Food of Taiwan, courtesy of HarperCollins.
2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as vegetable
4 cloves garlic, minced
¾ pound ground pork
½ cup tianmianjiang (aka sweet bean sauce, sweet wheat sauce or sweet flour sauce)
1 cup water
1 pound Asian wheat noodles (any thickness), preferably fresh rather than dried
1 medium-large cucumber, julienned
1 large carrot, julienned (optional)
2 scallions, thinly sliced (optional)
2 tablespoons fried shallots (optional)
2 soy sauce-stewed eggs, halved (optional)
½ cup shelled, cooked edamame (optional)
About 2 teaspoons Taiwanese black vinegar, such as Kong Yen brand, or substitute with Chinese Chinkiang black vinegar (optional)
Step 1: Heat the oil in a wide saute pan or wok over medium heat and add the garlic. Cook until fragrant, stirring occasionally, about 30 seconds. Add the pork and stir, breaking it up into bits with your spatula, until just cooked, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Step 2: In a separate bowl, combine the tianmianjiang and water. Add this mixture to the pork and bring to a boil. Reduce to a gentle simmer and let cook uncovered for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened slightly. Remove from heat.
Step 3: Cook the noodles according to the instructions on the packages and drain; divide among 4 to 6 serving bowls. Top each with spoonfuls of the meat sauce. Top each bowl with a neat pile of the julienned cucumbers and optional julienned carrots. If you decide to use any of the other optional garnishes: Scatter the sliced scallions and fried shallots on top. Place the egg half and small pile of edamame to the side of the bowl. Drizzle a scant bit of the black vinegar on top of each bowl. Serve immediately.
Cathy Erway is a James Beard Award-winning food writer and the author of The Food of Taiwan: Recipes From the Beautiful Island. She hosts the podcast Self Evident, exploring Asian America’s stories.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Ivy Manning