There’s more to Sichuan cuisine than its spicy tofu and spicy sesame noodle. A lesser-known member of the noodle brethren is tian shui mian, literally translated as “sweet water noodles”, a street snack that can be eaten at any time of the day.
A quick stop to slurp down some tian shui mian is a popular activity for young Chengdu couples on early dates. The homemade wheat noodles are hand-cut till they have thick, angular edges and a dense, chewy texture akin to Japanese udon. Locals like to toss the noodles with a sweet and spicy sauce topped with crispy chilli flakes, minced garlic, a sprinkle of numbing Sichuan peppercorn powder and coarse sugar granules, which give the dish the sweetness that makes it stand out from the other fiery options on Sichuanese menus.
How is it eaten?
Tian shui mian is a simple dish best served cold and plain, without additional meat or vegetable toppings. Ideally the thickness of the noodles should be equal to the thick end of a chopstick. To retain the firmness in every bite, the noodles are heated until only a pin-sized thread of dough remains uncooked, similar to the al dente standard for preparing Italian pasta.
Ribbons of noodles are first coiled in a small bowl and then drizzled with a succession of condiments including soy sauce, red chilli oil, sesame paste and condensed soy sauce that is reduced till it acquires a sweet, sticky texture.
The noodles are often served in this way so diners can enjoy tossing them themselves, and watch as the jagged edges catch on every smudge of the sauce and seasoning. The strong wheat taste and slippery, slightly dry texture of the noodles makes a perfect contrast to the heat and flavour of its dressing.
Where to find the dish?
The noodles tend to turn up in eateries that serve other cold noodle meals or jelly noodles made with cornstarch and green peas.
A popular eatery that specialises in tian shui mian in Chengdu is Dong Zi Kou Zhang Lao Er Liang Fen (39 Wen Shu Yuan Jie, +86 28 8191 0576), a no-frills noodle shack that has been around since 1944. The queues for food are perpetual but a large window onto the kitchen lets you watch the chefs splash on the sauces while you wait on the pavement outside. Large numbers of locals are known to slurp their feast at the eatery’s front door, especially during peak seasons such as Chinese New Year.
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