Rice is a staple for most Southern Chinese, whereas mian (flour products) is a staple for northerners. Being from the south, I was not accustomed to flour noodles growing up; we only had mung bean noodles and rice noodles occasionally. After I moved to the U.S., I discovered all kinds of noodle dishes from mild Cantonese wonton noodles to spicy dan dan mian. One type of noodles that lingers in my memory is cold sesame noodles. I will never forget how that first bite of the chilled noodles brought me a warm feeling.
It was an early fall afternoon after my class at City College of San Francisco. I took an hour-long bus ride and made it to the Marina district where I was working in a Taiwanese restaurant as a waitress. The eldest chef made me a big bowl of cold noodles. His smile and kind eyes reminded me of my father. With curiosity, I took my first bite. Sweet, then salty, creamy — the flavors of the noodles were dancing in my mouth. After a few bites, I started to feel the heat. Then more heat snuck up on my palate. I started sweating and swearing. My coworkers started teasing me — a Cantonese girl like me couldn't handle the heat of the chilis. The experience made an impression, coloring my food endeavors. I often think about the people I met at that restaurant: the eldest chef who always shared kitchen meals with me; the quiet, kind-hearted, Japanese kitchen helper who gave me a ride home after work; and the kitchen mama who always brought me treats from her home. I felt so loved that first year away from my family in Humboldt. I went back a couple of times after I moved back home but it had changed owners. I tried to recreate this dish years ago but felt there was something missing. Now I'm determined to make it better. From toasting the sesame seeds and peanuts to making my own chili oil, I'm pretty sure I have nailed it. The spicy sesame sauce is the key to this dish. When it's served with cool cucumber, I can handle the heat. Hope you can, too.
Cold Noodles with Sesame Sauce
You can use plain Chinese noodles, fresh or dried ramen noodles, or buckwheat noodles. Serves 4.
1 pound fresh or dried noodles
1 English or regular cucumber, seeded
2 medium carrots
1 ½ cup sesame sauce (see recipe below)
Sliced scallions, toasted sesame seeds and chopped peanuts for garnish
First, cook noodles according to the package instructions. After cooking the noodles al dente, rinse them with cold water. Add a few drops of sesame oil and toss to coat, set aside. Cut the cucumber and carrots into matchsticks, and set aside. Get the sesame sauce ready to arrange the noodle bowl by putting 2 tablespoons of sauce on the bottom, adding a handful of cold noodles, and topping them with cucumber and carrots. Toss everything together, making sure the noodles are coated with sauce. Drizzle more sauce if you'd like, and garnish with scallions, sesame seeds and chopped peanuts.
Spicy Sesame Sauce
If you want an easier way, you can use tahini and creamy peanut butter instead of blending the seeds and nuts. Just add the rest of the ingredients and mix well.
1 ½ cup toasted white sesame seeds
¼ cup toasted black sesame (optional, can be substituted with more white sesame seeds)
½ cup toasted peanuts
2 tablespoons sesame oil or grape seed oil
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon black or rice vinegar
2 tablespoons chili oil or chili sauce
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 cup hot water
Put everything except the hot water in the blender or food processor, and puree until it's a smooth paste. Add the water and blend until it's a slightly runny, creamy sauce. Adjust the sweetness and saltiness to your liking. If you can handle the heat, add more chili oil or chili sauce. The sauce can be refrigerated up to 2 weeks. This vegan sauce is also great on steamed vegetables, such as spinach, asparagus and broccoli, or on salads.