Squid ink pasta. Yawn. So mainstream. But Chinese black noodles, or fern root vermicelli? They’re pretty obscure. You probably haven’t heard of them. (Note the tone of irony, but seriously, who has heard of them?)
With a texture somewhere between glass noodles and Korean sweet potato noodles, fern root vermicelli, or jue gen fen, are strangely seductive, especially when tossed in a spicy sauce with vinegar and chilis and served cold. Black noodles are intended to be served as an appetizer, but there were multiple days this summer where it was too sweltering for anything else– I would order this spicy salad, topped with slivered cucumber, chopped cilantro, crunchy soy beans, and a LOT of hot pepper, enjoying the sensation of hot and cold.
Unfortunately, it seems cruel of me to tantalize you with a recipe whose primary ingredient is nearly impossible to find outside of China. First of all, the noodles seem to defy logic. To quote MOOG (Mother of Octopus Gourmet), “Whose idea do you think it was to make noodles out of fern roots?” Point well taken, but thank god they did. In dried form, the vermicelli resemble black twigs, so you’ll know instantly if you’ve found the right kind. I was lucky enough to find mine at the Saturday market outside our apartment in Beijing, where I also bought oat flour noodles and wild nettles in dried form.
I’ll be honest– this recipe was FOOG’s doing, like so many other dishes on this blog. All I really contributed was seasoning, garnishing, plating, and of course, adjusting the taste. Again, like his other recipes, there are no exact measurements. I would start out with less of each ingredient and keep tasting, adjusting the dressing to taste (to make it more sour, add more vinegar… salty, more soy sauce… sweet, more sugar, and spicy, obviously, more chili pepper).
The recipe also calls for Sichuan peppercorn oil, which is just what it sounds like: oil infused with Sichuan peppercorns. You can achieve the same “numbing” taste by heating some peanut oil over a low flame with sichuan peppercorns. Alternatively, a faster method would be to heat the oil on high until it smokes, add the peppercorns, and turn it off, adding the peppercorn-oil mixture to the sauce. However, you may find yourself crunching on bits of peppercorn.
Traditionally, Black Noodles are served with crispy bits of fried or toasted soy beans, but you could easily substitute almonds, walnuts, or sesame seeds (which is what I did), or even leave them out altogether.
Sour Spicy Black Noodles, AKA fern root vermicelli
- 1 bunch dried fern root vermicelli (You can substitute glass noodles or Korean sweet potato noodles here, but it will be a different dish and texture)
- Water for boiling
- 1 TBSP Sichuan peppercorn oil
- 4 TBSP Chinese black vinegar
- 1 1/2– 2 TBSP Soy sauce
- Sugar, to taste
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- Chili pepper, depending on how spicy you like it
- 1/2 long cucumber, julienned
- 1/2 cup cilantro
- Sesame seeds, for garnish
- Boil the noodles. This is the trickiest part, because the outside will become gluey while the inside stays hard. Therefore, you have to keep tasting them. Even if they look like they’re falling apart, due to the strangeness of fern root anatomy, they’re probably not done.
- Drain the noodles, then rinse thoroughly with cold water while you make the dressing.
- Combine all ingredients except for cucumber, cilantro and sesame seeds, in a bowl.
- Transfer the noodles to a shallow serving dish and drizzle with half of the dressing.
- Top with cucumbers, then drizzle on the rest of the dressing.
- Garnish with cilantro and sesame seeds.
- Adjust seasonings to taste and serve.
Eat as a light lunch, maybe with some grilled tofu or soup on the side, or serve it as an accompaniment to a Chinese dinner. I’d advise trying to balance the acidity of the noodles with slightly sweeter or milder dishes, plus rice. Stir-fried eggs and tomato and broccoli with ginger and shiitakes… this meal never gets old, and it hits all the right notes.
The key to perfect eggs and tomato? Mediocre, overripe tomatoes that are probably on sale. Also, really fresh eggs with golden-orange yolks.
Sorry, where was I? To serve the noodles, mix cucumbers and cilantro into the vermicelli with chopsticks and slurp.