A Local Take on a Beijing Classic

Despite outward appearances, this is not a plate of spaghetti Bolognese. It’s actually a local take on zha jiang mien, one of the most popular specialties of Northern China.

Chowking, the largest Chinese fast food chain in my neck of the woods, calls this dish spicy pork and mushroom noodles. The name alone is already a dead giveaway as to what’s in the sauce.

Real zha jiang mien is, traditionally, a winter dish and consists of ground pork and bits of tofu sauteed with chives and garlic; in Beijing and much of Northern China, no oil is used in this part of the process. Huáng jiàng (yellow soy bean paste) is used to flavor the dish and give the sauce its characteristic color and thickness. A bit of chili pepper may be used to give the dish additional heat, but this is optional in most cases, as is the additional of minced shiitake mushroom.

While Chowking’s version isn’t exactly authentic, you have to admit that it does have its charms. One would think that there would be tomatoes in the sauce because of the color but there aren’t any. At the same time, one would also think that the sauce would be sweet (as is, alas, the case with locally-flogged spaghetti) but there’s only the faintest hint of sweetness and even this is tempered by a good mix of spicy and savory flavors. The squiggly egg noodles used for the dish hold up quite well to the heavy texture of the sauce and had a bit of bite to them.

A set meal (or Value King as Chowking flogs it) consists of a plate of noodles and a regular-sized drink; it’ll only set you back P 49.00 (just a little over US$ 1.00). While these are good on their own, I like pairing a plate of these noodles with some crisp-fried tofu in a soy-vinegar dressing topped with grated ginger, minced onion, some chili, and chives.

Next time I find myself in Binondo, I’ll try the soy bean “handiwork” noodles over at Dong Bei near Ongpin St. Rumor has it that they’re the closest you can get to the Beijing original.