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Tantanmen: The Spicy Roots of this Popular Ramen Dish

Tantanmen, or dan dan mian, is a crowd-pleaser. There's no ramen dish like it, as it's intricate blend of both savory and spicy. From soupless tantanmen with grilled cheese to Michelin star tantanmen, there are countless variations of it today. But first, let's look at tantanmen's history and how it came to be.

Tantanmen's Chengdu Start

Dan Dan Mian Shoulder Pole
Shoulder Pole in 1700s Japan

Tantanmen has its spicy roots in Chengdu, Shichuan province in the 1800s. The word "dan dan" actually refers to the shoulder pole that was used to carry the noodle dish. Tantanmen therefore started out soupless - this meant less weight to carry!

The broth featured Chinese chili oil blended with Sichuan numbing pepper and toppings like minced pork, negi, and pickled mustard greens (zha cai). This was the tantanmen OG.

The dish eventually spread to other parts of China, including Shanghai. But in Shanghai they added soup and brought down the overall spice level.

Tantanmen Arrives in Japan

The tantamen that first reached Japan was closer to the Shanghai version. It was milder and had a greater focus on sesame paste and chili paste (not oil). The noodles were also adjusted to be a bit thicker and more wavy.

Old-School Tantanmen at Hashigo
Old-School Tantanmen at Hashigo

In Tokyo, what become most popular started at Chinese restaurant Akasaka Sichuan Hanten (赤坂四川飯店). They prepared the broth so that raiyu chili oil and sesame paste floated at the very top. This light and sour broth style was adopted by ramen shops throughout Tokyo, including Hashigo in Ginza.

Today's Wide Variety of Tantanmen

Michelin star awarded ramen shop Nakiryu does a similar style of tantanmen to Hashigo. Just be prepared to possibly wait a few hours before eating.

Michelin Star Tantanmen at Nakiryu
Michelin Star Tantanmen at Nakiryu

Beyond the sesame paste versions, there's a whole lot of tantanmen variety these days. In Japan there's really not one distinct style. Some restaurants might use bok choy and others little pieces of dried shrimp - the latter being inspired by Hong Kong's dan dan noodles.

Grilled Cheese Tantanmen at Masara
Grilled Cheese Tantanmen at Masara

The city of Hiroshima is now famous for soupless tantanmen, and some restaurants like Masara provide interesting twists, including grilled cheese. Kastuura in Chiba is famous for a piping hot chili based tantanmen and Odawara for a thick and starchy tantanmen.

The popularity of tantanmen will only grow and the ramen will continue to evolve in exciting ways. The future of tantanmen is a bright and spicy one.

Tantanmen in Tokyo's Kamiyacho District:


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