Most of the time, the broth is what makes the dish, and the work that goes into it is what makes all the difference. A broth made with pork, chicken, or seafood can be cooked for up to three days, making a rich, velvety soup with complex, multilayered flavors.
So it might seem unfair to compare a vegan broth that takes only a few minutes to make to one that takes dozens of hours to make. But the creamy broth in tantanmen, which doesn’t have any meat, is up to the challenge. It can be made in a short amount of time without losing flavor or body.
Tantanmen comes from the Sichuan dish dan dan noodles. Its power comes not from a strong broth, but from a base of mildly sweet soy milk mixed with seasonings called “tare” in Japan.
Here, buttery Chinese or Japanese sesame paste, which tastes richer and stronger than tahini, is mixed with soy sauce, rice vinegar, chile oil, and sugar to give the broth an earthy flavor. Doubanjiang, a spicy sauce from Sichuan made of fermented fava beans and a local chile called er jing tiao, is often added for depth and extra heat, so feel free to add a couple of tablespoons, to taste, if you have some on hand.
As is often the case with food, the best dishes have the right amount of each ingredient. Tantanmen is no different. Its round shape comes from kombu, which is dried kelp. Even though it’s not necessary, adding it softens any sharp flavors and makes other ingredients stronger without overpowering them. Just add a piece to your vegetable stock as it heats up, and in less than 10 minutes, it will taste more savory, slightly sweeter, and full-bodied.
There are many different choices for toppings, but it’s always a good idea to add some protein. Tantanmen is usually made with pork or chicken, but this vegan version uses hearty, filling tofu without sacrificing flavor or weight. The simple method here is to pan-fry thick slices of seasoned tofu. These can be used in salads (just cut them into triangles or strips), tacos, veggie burgers, or served with brown rice and a peanut sauce.
The sweet corn balances out the savory broth, and the shiitake mushrooms soak up and boost the flavor of the thick broth.
Don’t wait around once your broth and noodles are in the bowl. This quick dish is best eaten quickly. Take a cue from the Japanese and give yourself five minutes to slurp it all up to avoid soggy noodles, which are the worst.