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How-To

Tender, Nutty Sesame Noodles at Their Best

Forget gloppy—these are light, bouncy, and glistening with a fresh toasted sesame dressing

Fine Cooking Issue 37
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Ironically, I didn’t grow up eating sesame noodles, even though I grew up in a Chinese-American household. In fact, I remember tasting this quintessential Chinese noodle dish for the first time when I was in college. It sounded so wonderful—cool noodles with a spicy sesame dressing. Unfortunately, those noodles were less than wonderful. The dish I tasted was a mass of gooey pasta heavily dressed with a bland sauce of peanuts and nary a hint of sesame. This early disappointment may account for my fanatic search for the perfect way to make sesame noodles. It took many years of tasting different versions of sesame noodles (some much better than others) and testing at my own stove before I came up with a recipe I love.

These noodles glisten with a toasty sesame dressing that coats each noodle but doesn’t drown it. Made from freshly toasted and ground sesame seeds, the tangy, sweet, and spicy flavors in the sauce marry with the noodles. A garnish of red pepper, snow peas, scallions, and daikon makes a cool, crunchy contrast.

Chinese egg noodles are my choice

Since the noodles are such a big part of this dish, it’s worth the little extra effort to find the ones that work best. I prefer fresh Chinese egg noodles (also called wonton noodles), which are bouncy, light, and silken in texture when cooked. Most Asian groceries, and some supermarkets, carry them in the cooler in the produce section. My next favorite choice is an Italian variety of thin dried egg noodles called fidellini. Or you could use capellini.

Fresh Chinese noodles take seconds to cook. The compacted noodles should be fluffed, but try not to tear them—in Chinese culture, long noodles are a metaphor for long life. Besides, it’s easier and more fun to eat them this way. After cooking and draining the noodles, toss them in a little oil.

Choose fresh, high-quality ingredients. Asian groceries sell fresh Chinese egg noodles and Japanese toasted sesame oil (Kyoto is the author’s favorite). Be sure to buy fresh sesame seeds and good-quality peanut oil; both will taste off if they’re old.

Toast and grind your own sesame seeds

The spicy sesame sauce is equally as important as the noodles. I make a velvety, rich blend of toasted, ground sesame seeds, peanut oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, chile paste, garlic, and shallots that’s much less sticky than recipes that call for peanut butter. I like toasting and grinding my own sesame seeds because I often find that store-bought tahini (sesame paste) can have a slightly off, almost rancid flavor.

Once you’ve toasted the sesame seeds and softened a little garlic and shallots on the stove, all the sauce ingredients (except the water) go into the blender at one time. The sesame seeds grind up as you blend the sauce ingredients together. The only tricky part is that you want to fully purée the ingredients, but if you mix them too much, the sesame seeds will give off too much oil. Don’t worry, though; you can always pour any excess oil off the top of the purée after it sits. After making the purée, I like to leave time for the flavors to mingle, so I often make the purée the day before I’m going to use it and then whisk in the water just before dressing the noodles. The water emulsifies with the fats in the purée and creates a smooth, creamy sauce that coats more easily and feels nicer in your mouth.

Toast sesame seeds until golden brown—about 15 minutes at 350°F. Watch that they don’t burn.
Blend the sauce ingredients on high until a thick, wet paste forms and the sesame seeds have broken up.
After the puree sits, drain off any excess oil and begin whisking in water to make a smooth sauce.
Water is key to a creamy sauce. Use the sauce right away; if it has to wait, whisk in a bit more water before using.

By varying garnishes, sesame noodles can be a side dish or a meal-in-one. These noodles are so  good that you can eat them as is, but you can also change the garnishes to suit your needs. I may add julienned carrots and sugar snap peas, or julienned mango, apples, and Asian pears for extra spark and crunch. If I don’t have peanuts, I use almonds or pine nuts. To make it a main dish, I add grilled shrimp or scallops, or even thinly sliced beef or chicken.

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