The whole point of cold sesame noodles is what’s called in the food trade its “mouth feel,’‘ the velvety smooth feeling of perfectly combined ingredients. This recipe is a classic.
Cold sesame noodles are a mainstay of Chinese takeout menus. They have been so since at least the 1970s, when Chinese chefs trained in the banquet arts introduced the dish to diners at new-style Sichuan restaurants in New York City.
Cold and fiery, meant to combat the lazy, brutal humidity of a Chinese summer, the noodles were soft and luxurious, bathed in an emulsified mixture of sesame paste and peanut butter, rendered vivid and fiery by chili oil, and sweetened by sugar, with a rice vinegar tang.
But the chefs who made the dish aged, retired, died. The recipes began to slip in the hands of their replacements. The dish got too sweet, too gummy, and started to taste, even at better Chinese restaurants, something like fridge-flavored nostalgia. People still ordered cold sesame noodles, but they were rarely pleased with the decision. (You, too?)
In 2007, for an article in The New York Times, I set out to discover how to make cold sesame noodles correctly.
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The restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld, a historian of Chinese food in New York and once the maître d’hôtel for David Keh’s Uncle Tai’s on the Upper East Side, was of great help, digging up his memories of the great noodleman Shorty Tang, who ran the kitchen at Hwa Yuan. (Use commercial peanut butter, Schoenfeld advised.) So, later, was the Tang family — Shorty Tang’s son, Jerry, and Gilley, his grandson, who would go on to sell a version of the dish at the Smorgasburg market in Brooklyn.
The recipe is a Times Classic, worth making right away and then again and again.
Just whisk together the ingredients and taste them. “The art is in the balance,” Schoenfeld said at the time, “between the salt and sweet, the sweet and the fire, and the fire and the acidity.” Then use the resulting sauce to coat cold cooked noodles. That’s dinner, right there.
TAKEOUT-STYLE SESAME NOODLES
Makes 4 servings
1 pound Chinese egg noodles (1/8-inch-thick), frozen or (preferably) fresh, available in Asian markets
2 tablespoons sesame oil, plus a splash
3½ tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese rice vinegar
2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste
1 tablespoon smooth peanut butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons chili-garlic paste, or to taste
Half a cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/8-inch by 1/8-inch by 2-inch sticks
¼ cup chopped roasted peanuts
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add noodles and cook until barely tender, about five minutes; they should retain a hint of chewiness. Drain, rinse with cold water, drain again and toss with a splash of sesame oil.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 2 tablespoons sesame oil, the soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame paste, peanut butter, sugar, ginger, garlic and chili-garlic paste.
3. Pour the sauce over the noodles and toss. Transfer to a serving bowl, and garnish with cucumber and peanuts.
1. The “Chinese sesame paste’’ is made of toasted sesame seeds; it is not the same as tahini, the Middle Eastern paste made of plain, untoasted sesame. But you could use tahini in a pinch. You need only add a little toasted sesame oil to compensate for flavor, and perhaps some peanut butter to keep the sauce emulsified.
2. On which subject, the whole point of cold sesame noodles is what’s called in the food trade its “mouth feel,’‘ the velvety smooth feeling of perfectly combined ingredients. That’s why you find so much peanut butter in preparations of cold sesame noodles. Peanut butter emulsifies better than sesame paste.
3. Hey, where are the Sichuan peppercorns? Sichuan food depends on their tingly numbing power! Perhaps, but the little fruits were banned from the United States from 1968 until 2005 by the Food and Drug Administration because they were feared to carry citrus canker, a bacterial disease. And while you could always find them in Chinatowns somewhere (sitting, dry and baleful, in a pile), there are few in the true cult of sesame noodles who use them in their recipes. By all means, add some if you like: toast a tablespoon’s worth in a dry pan, crush lightly and whisk the resulting mess into your sauce.