Summers in China are brutal. I’ve been inland in the dead of August, when the sum of heat, smog, and humidity felt like being dragged through a sauna fully clothed with a hot towel wrapped around your head. There I witnessed a particularly novel way people cooled off. At a number of Beijing restaurants, diners crowded around rickety tables slurping bowls of cold sesame noodles.
In Western cultures, pasta salad has never felt substantial enough to anchor a meal, but viewed through the lens of Chinese cooking, it suddenly does. Maybe because sesame noodles can stand on their own as well as accommodate proteins like shredded chicken or any number of crunchy vegetables.
As with countless dishes you can easily pick up prepackaged from Whole Foods, cold sesame noodles (especially) are far cheaper to make at home, and you end up with a tub of leftover sauce that’s infinitely versatile, accompanying everything from grilled meats and spring rolls to another helping of cold noodles.
I’ve been working on my sesame noodles recipe for a while, testing different combinations and ratios. (I played with honey, balsamic vinegar, Maggi seasoning, tamari, ginger, etc.) Ultimately, batch number five won our internal taste test, and the resulting recipe is below. I found a pairing of equal parts sesame paste (tahini) and peanut butter yielded the nuttiest and most savory result. I also tested a number of peanut butters—many of the top-shelf organic, artisan variety—but found that basic Skippy or Jif gave the sauce a more balanced sweetness. (I imagine almond butter would work just as well.)
The big revelation was green tea. Most Chinese cookbook recipes suggest using hot water to dilute the sauce, since it’ll invariably firm up when chilled. But several sources noted hot tea would do the trick, while simultaneously adding an interesting new flavor. While the differences between hot water and tea were subtle, the tea imparted a shadowy smokiness and brought a layer of appealing bitterness to the sauce. I’m a convert now.
If you can find egg noodles at an Asian grocer, that’s great, but we’ve used spaghetti forever and it more than suffices. As for toppings, you could dress up the finished bowl however you’d like (snow peas, bell peppers, water chestnuts, anything crunchy), but I’m a purist and opt for simplicity: I use hand-shredded, poached chicken breast; some julienned cucumbers; chopped scallions; and maybe crushed peanuts and a sprig of cilantro. Remove the chicken, and it’ll still be satisfying to vegans and carnivores alike.
Cold sesame peanut noodles
Serves four, or two with a lot of leftover sauce
1/4 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup sesame paste (tahini)
1/4 cup soy sauce (if you’re using Chinese soy sauce, make sure it’s light soy)
2 tsp. toasted sesame oil + 2 tsp. for dressing noodles
1 1/2 Tbsp. mirin
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. sriracha or Tabasco hot sauce
1/2 cup hot green tea
Toasted sesame seeds
2 chicken breast fillets
1 1-lb. package spaghetti
1. In a large bowl, combine peanut butter, sesame paste, soy sauce, mirin, 2 teaspoons sesame oil, sugar, garlic, and hot sauce and whisk together. It should come together more pastelike than sauce. Begin to dilute this paste with 1/4 cup of hot green tea, more if necessary, whisking until the sauce is pourable and tastes a touch on the saltier side (it’ll balance out once mixed with the noodles, don’t worry). You can also blend this in a food processor.
2. Roast your chicken breast via your favorite method (We use Ina Garten’s technique of roasting skin-on, bone-in split chicken breast: rub with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then roast for 45 to 50 minutes at 350 degrees). Let cool, then hand-shred the meat—don’t chop it. Dice scallions and slice the cucumber into 2-inch-long sticks.
3. Bring a pot of water to boil and add spaghetti, remembering to season the water with a healthy pinch of salt. After it’s cooked, rinse spaghetti in a colander with cold water. In a large serving bowl, toss cooled noodles with 2 tsp. sesame oil, then pour sesame-peanut sauce atop, and continue tossing. Add cooled, shredded chicken, cucumber, and scallions to your liking. Sprinkle with what you think is a lot of toasted sesame seeds and then sprinkle some more. (Extra credit: Add chopped peanuts and cilantro.)
4. To revive chilled leftover sauce the next day, add a splash of hot tea and whisk until loose.