Dan Dan Noodles with Xinyi Lim of Megafauna
Images by Saskia Wilson
We first met chef Xinyi Lim in New York City in the kitchen of one of our most frequented local eateries ‘El Rey’; an iconic Lower East Side hole-in-the-wall that often saw lines stretching down Stanton Street, even on the most blistering of Manhattan days. What we didn’t know at the time was that this vocation was relatively new for Xinyi, having fallen into it after taking a break from corporate law.
“I worked in law for a few years after university before I decided to take some time off and travel to New York. By some stroke of luck, I found a job in a small, thriving restaurant group in the first couple of weeks, and ended up staying. I’ve since worked in a variety of establishments and restaurants, and across both front and back of house, in order to get a very holistic understanding of the hospitality industry.”
During her time in New York Xinyi started Megafauna, a business and personal project that continues to evolve and includes pop-ups and charitable incarnations.
“Megafauna was started out of opportunities that came my way to create food pop-ups and events during my time in New York. These were the best and craziest times, cooking and working with chef friends in the most diverse of environments and with clients across New York, Upstate, The Hamptons and Mexico City.”
“In 2020, I found myself stuck in Sydney due to Covid and embarked on a couple of personal projects, including a small meal service called Family Meal, to raise funds for Black Lives Matter and First Nations organisations. Almost a year after I’ve been back, I’m now running the kitchen at Cafe Freda’s, a neighbourhood bistro and wine bar that opened in Darlinghurst on New Year’s Eve. The journey has been a wild ride to say the least, many many highs and the deepest of lows, but I’m completely humbled by, and grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given.”
Food is something Xinyi thinks deeply about and has been drawn to from a young age. Today, she has a particular interest in the origins of the ingredients she uses from both a farming and cultural perspective.
“Food is about gathering, but we should also be mindful, sensitive and educated about what we are eating. I care a lot about sourcing ethically and sustainability, as well as supporting small, local, like-minded businesses. I see that as a big part of my role right now at Cafe Freda’s.”
”I have early memories of watching my Chinese grandmother making zhongzi (bamboo leaf wrapped glutinous rice packages) in the Sydney winter, with freezing hands. I also remember making scones from a tattered Margaret Fulton cookbook with my sister every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.”
Food is about gathering, but we should also be mindful, sensitive and educated about what we are eating.
For this feature we asked Xinyi to share the recipe for a much loved dish ‘Dan Dan Noodles’ in celebration of Chinese New Year. A holiday that is usually a mix of work and celebration for the young chef.
“In recent years I’ve done pop-ups in New York and Mexico City with friends which have been the best experiences. This year, we’ll hopefully be doing a special Chinese New Year dinner at Cafe Freda’s, but I’ll also be finding time to gather over food with family and friends. The holiday lasts over 14 days so there’s plenty of time to celebrate!”
Dan Dan Noodles
Dan Dan Noodles (dandan mian 担担面) is an iconic dish from Sichuan you might find at any chinese restaurant. I am not Sichuanese, but I have travelled to the province and have always been obsessed with the cuisine. Everyone loves Dan Dan Noodles, and I think of it as a bit of a blank canvas too, as long as you have the requisite chilli oil, sesame paste, sauces and peanuts! The Dan Dan Noodles I like to make are vegetarian, using shiitake mushrooms and various crisp seasonal vegetables instead of pork.
Dan Dan Noodles is not a traditional dish eaten on Chinese New Year, but noodles are popular during this holiday, in particular Longevity Noodles (Changshou Mian), with their long, unsevered length symbolising long life.
There are quite a few ingredients to this recipe but don’t be put off - you should be able to get them all at once at an Asian or Chinese supermarket. The sauces/spices are all key ingredients in Sichuanese cuisine so it’s a good excuse to follow up and experiment with other Chinese dishes. The topping components are free and easy. I like to use shiitake mushrooms as their strong and earthy taste are undeniably Chinese and stand up to the flavour bomb sauce. However feel free to use whatever you have in the fridge. In the end, whatever you decide, you want about 3 Tbs of topping for each serve. This recipe is adapted from The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop, which is an excellent, well-researched resource for Sichuanese cuisine and food culture.
4 tsp sesame paste (or tahini), stirred in the jar so it is has a runny consistency
4 Tbs light soy sauce
4 tsp Chinkiang vinegar (Chinese black rice vinegar)
8 Tbs chilli oil (ideally homemade but store bought is also fine, check out Lulu’s Remedy!) with sediment
2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp ground roasted Sichuan pepper (or 2 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorn, toasted lightly in a pan and crushed in a mortar and pestle) - or more if you like that numbing feeling
2 spring onions, finely sliced
6 cloves of garlic, minced
500g fresh wheat-flour noodles (‘yangchuen’ style is a good option)
Any fresh herbs, leafy greens or vegetables that you have e.g. spinach, coriander, sliced cucumber. I used chrysanthemum greens from my garden, fresh corn, sliced spring onions, coriander, mint
Sesame oil to season
8 shiitake mushrooms (if using dried, they must be soaked in hot water for at least 30 mins until soft)
1 Tbs crushed chilli flakes (depending on how spicy you like it)
Glug of cooking oil
1 tsp ground, roasted Sichuan peppercorn (or 2 tsp whole peppercorn, toasted lightly and ground)
4 Tbs preserved mustard greens, rinsed, squeezed dry and chopped finely (called ‘suimi yacai’ or ‘yibin yacai’ - optional, if you can’t get this, but it adds salty sweetness to the topping)
Any other crunchy vegetables you want to add (corn, diced carrot or celery), or, as is traditionally used, ground meat
Generous glug of light soy sauce
Smaller glug of dark soy sauce
If using dried shiitakes, they must be soaked for at least 30 mins until soft. Trim and discard shiitake stalks, and dice the caps. Heat oil in a fry pan until hot and smoky. Tip in mushrooms and fry until they start to crisp and smell like caramelising meat. Don’t be afraid of burnt edges - the mushrooms are better because of it. Add Sichuan pepper, chilli flakes and mustard greens and fry briefly until fragrant. Stir in soy sauces and salt, taste to make sure you love it, then take off the heat. Use immediately or keep warm until ready to serve.
Divide remaining ingredients (except for noodles and garnishes) between 4 serving bowls or 1 fun family platter and mix.
Boil the noodles until al dente (timing will depend but check the packet for instructions), then drain in a colander and divide between the bowls. Top with mushroom mixture and garnishes, a few drops of sesame oil and serve. Mix well with chopsticks before eating. Serve alongside extra chilli oil and garnishes for your family to add as they wish.