Fiery, fragrant, slightly sweet, and nicely sour, these Qishan-style noodles are wonderfully warming and superbly satisfying. Ladled over noodles, the contrasting flavors come from a broth full of pork belly, cayenne peppers, Chinese five-spice, ginger, vinegar, mushrooms, carrots, and potatoes.
The powerful appeal of this hearty delight comes from its big variety of really distinctive tastes, colors, and textures. And once the broth-covered noodles are topped with finely sliced scallions, chives and thin strips of pale golden omelette, the lure of that appeal becomes irresistible.
Irresistible? For sure. Within all that savory complexity, it’s so pleasing how all the ingredients keep their own character. Nothing dominates, and nothing hides away. So, the gloriously fat-boosted flavors of the pork belly are just as obvious as the umami of the shiitake mushrooms, the sweetness of the carrots, and the mild earthiness of the potatoes and the noodles.
It’s these wonderful contrasts that make this such a well-rounded, one-bowl meal. And, just like the additional variety created by those stylish toppings, the contrasts keep on coming.
Bright heat, gingery warmth, and a sweet ‘n sour spiciness
Fresh red cayenne peppers certainly give the broth an instant spark of bright heat, but that’s balanced by the gentler, slow-burning warmth of fresh ginger. And then there’s the quintet of flavors introduced by Chinese five-spice powder, a classic blend that’s usually made with ground star anise, cinnamon, fennel seeds, cloves, and Szechuan peppercorns.
Subtly sweet, slightly peppery, a little astringent, and with a definite licoricey note, five-spice is a very versatile combo, adding a typically Chinese savor to many foods ranging from seafood to ice cream. It’s probably the oldest, most widely used spice mix in China’s cuisine and goes particularly well with fatty meats like duck and pork.
In our recipe, the blend’s classic sweet and sour flavors are amplified by Shaoxing rice wine, vinegar, and a little brown sugar.
China’s ‘Noodle Central’ – Shaanxi
I’ve seen the province of Shaanxi in north-western China referred to as the ‘Kingdom of Noodles’. From a culinary and economic perspective, noodles are very big news in Shaanxi and have been for a long, long time.
Rather confusingly, Shanxi, with just one ‘a’, is one of Shaanxi’s neighboring provinces. This is also ‘big noodle’ country and is perhaps just as deserving of the ‘Kingdom’ title. The widely respected Chinese-food writer, Fuchsia Dunlop, says in an enlightening Financial Times article that when it comes to noodles, nowhere in China is more renowned than Shanxi.
Leaving all that neighborly rivalry aside, across both these provinces, noodles come in many different shapes and sizes, and they aren’t all made using wheat flour. Ground oats and corn are also used to make the dough, as are millet, beans, sorghum, and potatoes. All these variants are generally referred to as mian, in much the same way that spaghetti and macaroni are known as pasta.
With a pedigree dating back a couple of millennia, our recipe hails from Qishan, a county in Shaanxi (the double ‘a’ one) that gave its name to the province’s legendary noodle dish, Qishan saozi mian.
A dish with heavyweight tradition. Over two thousand years of it
The word saozi is usually taken to mean chopped or ground meat. Now, that may be so, but a 2014 article in China Today claims that saozi means ‘sister-in-law’, and that the dish was first made by a relative of an up-and-coming imperial executive around two thousand years ago.
The story goes he was such a fan that he would offer the dish at the official functions he hosted. His guests were so impressed that news of this delicious new noodle number spread, and its fan base started to grow.
The China Today article explains that “Today, saozi is a homonym of the dish’s original name, referring in Shaanxi dialect to the spicy sauce with fragments of meat that accompany the noodles.” It adds that “The taste – sour and hot but not pungent – is the essence of Qishan saozi noodles.”
A word about choosing your noodles
For Qishan saozi mian, long, thin, and simple is the way to go. The dried, store-bought, Chinese noodles I use are made from wheat flour, salt, and water. Can’t get much simpler than that, can you? No flavorings and no artificial preservatives, just those three, basic ingredients.
In terms of appearance, they’re about the same color and thickness as durum wheat spaghetti. But quite unlike spaghetti, the noodles come folded into blocks about three inches square and an inch thick, usually with six blocks to a pack. And although the word ‘instant’ might appear on the pack, these plain, three-ingredient noodles aren’t the same as chemically enhanced things called instant or pot noodles.
Like this recipe? You’ll love these too:
- Singapore Noodles: A delicious mix of flavors and textures.
- Chili Con Carbonara: Creamy and fiery – we use red serranos for the heat.
- Spicy Ramen Noodles: Don’t settle for the packets – making your own fiery ramen is well worth the time.
Qishan Saozi Mian (Qishan-Style Noodles)
For the pork and its braising stock
- 3 fresh red cayenne peppers finely chopped, seeds and all. The ones I used were each about 2 ½ inches long.
- 1 ½ pounds rindless pork belly cut against the grain into 1/3-inch cubes. Look for a piece that’s got a fat content of about 40%, in pretty even layers.
- 2 tablespoons fresh ginger root finely grated, skin and all
- 1 heaped teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
- 4 bay leaves
- 3 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 4 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
- 3 tablespoons rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar
- 1 heaped teaspoon muscovado brown sugar demerara brown sugar is also fine
- 2 tablespoons sunflower oil canola oil is also fine
For the broth and vegetables
- 8 ounces carrots peeled and cut into a rough 1/2-inch dice
- 8 ounces all-purpose potatoes peeled and cut into a rough 1/3-inch dice
- 8 dried shiitake mushrooms medium-sized, soaked for 30 minutes in 4 tablespoons boiling water, and then cut into 1/8 inch slices, stalks and all
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger root grated, skin and all
- 8 cups chicken stock I used 2 low-salt chicken stock cubes, diluted in 8 cups boiling water
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt
- 2 tablespoons sunflower oil canola oil is also fine
For the sliced omelette topping
- 2 free-range eggs
- 1 tablespoon cold water
- 2 heaped teaspoons fresh chives finely chopped
- ½ teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil for frying the omelette. Rather than using a much plainer cooking oil, this gives the omelette a lovely nutty savor
For the garnishes
- 2 fresh red cayenne peppers cut into 1/8-inch disks, seeds and all
- 2 spring onions or scallions, all the white parts and all the crisp green parts, cut into 1/4-inch disks
- ½ ounce fresh chives cut into 1 ½ inch lengths
For the noodles
- 10 ounces plain dried noodles look for noodles that are made only from wheat flour, water and salt, and are similar to durum wheat spaghetti in thickness and color
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
- Enough water to cover the noodles by about 2 inches in a large saucepan
Cooking the pork
- We’ll start with the pork because it needs a little cooking before being added to the broth and its vegetables.
- So, add the oil to a large skillet and set it on a medium-high heat. I used a deep, heavy, 12-inch skillet that was big enough to hold all the cubed pork in a single layer. Let the oil heat for about 90 seconds and then stir in the pork.
- You’re aiming to give the pork a sizzling, fairly leisurely stir-fry for 3 minutes on that medium-high heat, so that the cubes just begin to pick up a little golden color and their fat starts to melt. As soon as that happens, stir in the cayenne peppers, ginger, five spice powder, and sugar.
- Continue stir frying for another 2 minutes, drop the heat to low, and add the bay leaves, light soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine (or dry sherry) and the rice vinegar (or apple cider vinegar.) Give it all a good stir and drop the heat to low. You now want the mix to come up to a slowly bubbling simmer on that low heat. When it does, turn off the heat and let the skillet sit while you sort out the broth and its vegetables.
Cooking the broth and its vegetables
- For this you want to use a saucepan that’s easily big enough to hold all the broth, its vegetables. and the pork with all its liquid.
- Set your big pan on a medium heat and add the oil. Let it heat for a minute then add the ginger, carrots, and mushrooms and gently stir fry for 2 minutes. Add the potatoes and continue that gentle stir frying for another 3 minutes.
- Stir in the pork and all the liquid it in which it was simmered. (You can use some of the chicken stock to make sure everything from your skillet goes into the big saucepan with the broth and vegetables.)
- Keep the heat on medium, add the stock and, when the saucepan comes to the boil, drop the heat to low. You now want to let everything cook at a gentle simmer for 10 minutes. While that’s happening, you can cook the noodles and the omelette so that they’re both ready to be served as soon as your big saucepan finishes its slow simmer.
- And just before the noodles are cooked, check your loaded broth for saltiness and sourness, adding a little more salt and vinegar to suit your taste.
Cooking the noodles
- For this, follow the instructions on the pack, and bear in mind that you’ll need to use a pan that will hold enough water to cover the noodles by 2 inches.
- Typically, the pack instructions will say to set the water to boil on a high heat, add the salt, and when the water boils, add the noodles. Then drop the heat a little so that the noodles cook at a steady, rolling boil for about 4 minutes. That’s a good time to check if the noodles are al dente – just a touch chewy. If not, let them boil for another minute or so until they are. Drain them in a colander and they’re done.
Cooking the omelette
- This only take about 3 minutes, so I’d do this while the noodles are cooking.
- You want the omelette to be fairly thin, so use a wide frying pan – a 10-inch pan would be grand.
- Beat the eggs together with the water, chives and salt in a small mixing bowl. Add the sesame oil to your frying pan so that it covers the base and set the pan on a medium-high heat for 90 seconds. Now pour in the beaten egg mix and swirl the pan so the mix flows right to the edges.
- Drop the heat to medium and let the omelette fry for 1 minute, then turn off the heat. The pan will still be hot enough to continue cooking the omelette for another minute until it sets completely. Turn the omelette onto a large board and cut it into strips about 2 ½ inches long and an inch wide. Time to serve.
Serving your Qishan saozi mian
- Large, warmed soup bowls will be just dandy for this.
- Add a serving of noodles to each bowl, and then ladle the pork and vegetable broth over the top of the noodles.
- Arrange some sliced scallions / spring onions on top of each bowl and add a few slices of omelette. Sprinkle the chives and sliced cayenne peppers over the lot and serve immediately.