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The Quest for Cold Sesame Noodles

June 3, 2010

The first time I tasted the Chinese dish usually called “Cold Sesame Noodles” or “Cold Peanut Noodles” on American menus, I fell instantly and irrevocably in love with its spicy-salty flavor and velvety texture.  The dish tends to be served closer to room temperature than actually cold, which seems to allow the perfect expression of its complex flavor.  My infatuation began at “Great Wall,” a tiny cafeteria-style eatery tucked into the back corner of the Hong Kong Grocery in New Haven, CT.  For years, I searched for a recipe that would approximate the flavor and texture of Great Wall’s noodles, to no avail.  Every recipe I tried was too oily, or too bland, or just not right in some other essential way.  Dozens of failures later, I found a good base recipe that gave me the magic combination of ingredients, and with some patient tweaking, I found the balance of flavor and texture I was craving.

Great Wall served their Cold Sesame Noodles with steamed broccoli, but my favorite way to have it is with roasted asparagus.  On steamy summer nights (read: tonight), when the thought of turning on the oven makes me shudder, I just garnish the dish with sliced scallions, and that does the trick. I know it looks like a lot of ingredients, but this dish comes together exceptionally fast.

Cold Sesame Noodles

about 1 lb noodles (udon, soba, linguini, or spaghetti)

1/2 cup vegetable broth (you can add more to taste if you find you like a thinner sauce)

1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce

2/3 cup peanut butter (the smoother the better)

1 tsp sesame oil

1 Tbsp rice vinegar

1 tsp chili-garlic paste

1 clove garlic, pressed or minced as finely as possible

1-inch knob of fresh ginger, finely grated

toasted sesame seeds & vegetables of your choice for garnish

Cook the noodles, then drain and rinse with cold water.  Set aside.  You can make the sauce in a blender, a food processor, or a deep bowl with a stick blender.  (In my opinion, the latter set-up results in the most velvety texture.  Use a DEEP bowl, or you will end up with peanut sauce all over your kitchen walls.  I’m not saying this has happened to me… but yeah, that totally happened to me.  Once.) Combine the sauce ingredients in the appliance set-up of your choice, and blend like crazy until the sauce is smooth.  Toss with noodles, garnish with toasted sesame seeds and vegetables, and serve.

TIP: If you’re going to be making this a day ahead, or saving any leftovers, then store the noodles and sauce separately in the fridge and combine them just before serving.  Otherwise, the noodles will continue to absorb moisture out of the sauce while refrigerated, and by the next day, you will have noodles covered in a nasty, chunky paste.  Not nice.

7 Comments
  1. Lorrie permalink
    June 4, 2010 12:25 am

    Yum!! I remember when you made this for me. I love any recipe that uses PB in a savory way. By the way, I will send you a totally improvised wheat berry/veggie/tofu/tahini recipe I came up with tonight that was divine (and would probably work well with some spicy peanut sauce).

  2. June 4, 2010 10:28 am

    Yes, please. I haven’t used wheat berries much, sounds intriguing.

  3. June 4, 2010 11:07 am

    Yum! I often put chopped cilantro in my peanut sauce in lieu of the sesame oil and seeds. But I’m going to try your recipe soon. It sounds fantastic!

  4. June 4, 2010 4:39 pm

    Well, now I know what I’m making for dinner tonight!

    P.S. I’ve been making your super chocolate-healthy smoothy a lot since I got back from visiting you – Chris likes it too! :)

  5. June 5, 2010 10:22 am

    I think cilantro would be an awesome addition to this recipe, too. I like the tiny crunch of the sesame seeds on top — let me know what you think when you try it. :)

  6. Lorrie permalink
    June 5, 2010 2:54 pm

    Here’s a rough recipe (let’s do it Mark Bittman-style with no measurements):

    1. Boil a cup of wheat berries in four times as much water for 90 minutes; keep adding water if it gets low; alternately, soak wheat berries overnight and boil for 60 minutes
    2. Meanwhile, finely chop up a variety of veggies such as broccoli and carrots, and dice some firm tofu
    3. Stir-fry veggies and tofu
    4. Chop up some arugula and marinated pepperoncinis
    5. When wheat berries are done, drain and let cool slightly.
    6. Toss everything together with a tahini-based dressing (I just used Annie’s Goddess dressing, but a homemade one would be delicious), some olive oil, and pepper to taste

  7. June 5, 2010 4:57 pm

    I will be making this very soon — I think you’re right, the sesame-peanut sauce would be great with this.

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