The Quest for Cold Sesame Noodles
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.