Next to avocados, cold sesame noodles is one of my all-time favorite foods. Often, I crave that nutty sesame taste with light but rich silky noodles. My first introduction to sesame noodles happened during my college years when I was living in the West Village of New York City. I had very little money to spend so I often looked for food that was within my meager means. Next to spending $2 for a falafel sandwich, cold sesame noodles was the next best deal.
My favorite sesame noodles came from a tiny restaurant in China Town called Little Szechuan. These noodles were light and not weighted down with peanut butter and sesame paste. They also had a great spicy kick. To this day I have not had sesame noodles that even compare the Little Szechuan’s noodles. Often, I walked from my apartment on West Street in the Village to China Town just to have these spicy Szechuan noodles.
Little Szechuan was a tiny restaurant located in a remote area of China Town. At most it had a total of 6 tables and was located on a hidden narrow street leading to another meandering road. I can’t remember the name of the street or how I knew about it. Yes, it sounds odd to describe a place in Manhattan as “remote”, but they exist, even on an island populated with over 8 million people.
Because I adore anything made with sesame seeds, it is not a hard job researching and testing recipes for the perfect cold sesame noodles. My main criteria are, they are not thick and gloppy with peanut butter. I want to taste the toasted sesame and not be weighed down by a pasty sauce. However, peanut butter is an important ingredient in sesame noodles because it keeps the sauce emulsified, like Dijon mustard does in a vinaigrette. Without peanut butter, the tahini or sesame paste will taste chalky and dry.
As I researched and tested many recipes over the years, I discovered they usually share the same ingredients. The main difference is how many of the specialty Chinese ingredients are used vs a more available substitute. The main differences come down to the proportions of each ingredient to get the deep umami and spicy flavor without feeling like you just ate a brick.
Unfortunately, if you want to make cold sesame noodles you must buy some specialty ingredients. The primary ones are the dark sesame oil and the sesame paste or tahini. The other ones are easier to work around. For instance, instead of Chinese sesame paste use tahini. Black vinegar has a deep dark flavor that adds a nice element, but rice vinegar is much more common and affordable. I specified garlic chili paste but chili oil is as common in most recipes. Or you can make the garlic chili paste or chili oil if you prefer. It is a lot to think about and these ingredients do add up, so do what is best for you. The good news is, if you invest in buying some of the ingredients like sesame oil, it will keep for a long time in the refrigerator. Also, there are other recipes to use them in.
I am feeling guilty asking to buy all these specialty foods. Fortunately, some of them are easy to get at your grocery store and might already own them. Soy sauce, tahini (Jayva brand is usually next to the peanut butter), and natural peanut butter are widely available. Rice vinegar is also located in the grocery with the other types of vinegar, or in the International section.
The other crazy thing is the packaging of the noodles. Unlike dried Italian pasta, most Asian noodle brands come in different size packages. I have seen them in sizes ranging from 5 oz to 12 oz. However, the amount of dried noodles or pasta you buy does not need to be exact. It is my opinion, the amount of sauce in this recipe is perfect for 10 ounces of noodles. If you need to make more, just double or make one and a half times the amount of sesame sauce to nicely coat your noodles. After you made it once you will learn how much sauce you need. You can find Asian noodles at the grocery located in the International food section and at Asian markets. You can also buy as many packs of dried Ramen noodle soup you want and throw out the seasoning packet.
Serve cold sesame noodles with
Cold sesame noodles are great for family gathering, vegetarian meals, or vegan dinners if your noodles don’t have eggs. When I want a more substantial meal I add shredded pieces of cooked chicken to the noodles for some extra protein. Other vegetables like broccoli also taste great with cold noodles.
Cold Sesame Noodles
- 10 oz Chinese Lo Mien Ramen, or spaghetti noodles
- 2 scallions sliced thin on a diagonal. White and green parts
- 1 medium 5 - 6.5 oz / 145 - 190 g seedless cucumber
- 2- inch piece of daikon radish or 1- 2 (3 oz / 88 g) watermelon radishes, or carrots
- 2 TBS 21 g toasted sesame oil,* extra to coat the cooked noodles
- 3 TBS 46 g / 150 ml soy sauce
- 2 TBS 25 g unseasoned rice vinegar
- 2 TBS 40 g tahini or dark sesame paste
- 1 TB 21 g smooth natural peanut butter
- 1-2 tsp 4 - 8 g brown sugar
- 1 TB 18 g chili garlic paste*
- 1 tsp 2.5 g Chinese black vinegar8
- 2 medium garlic cloves green germ removed and minced or grated
- 1½ - inch 4 cm piece fresh ginger, minced or grated
- toasted sesame seeds for garnish
- roasted and salted peanuts rough chop for garnish
- chopped cilantro for garnish optional
Prep your vegetables
Peel and scrape out any seeds. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, then cut each half in quarters. Cut each quarter into 1 - 2-inch (2.5 - 5.5 cm) strips. Set aside
Peel the radish and slice into very thin disc less than 1/8-inch (2 mm) thick. Cut each disk into matchstick size strips. Set in a small bowl filled with ice water. Set aside.
Take the sliced scallions and add to a small bowl filled with ice water. Keep the scallions and radishes in their ice bath for 15 minutes, or until you assemble and serve the sesame noodles. Set aside.
Cook the Pasta
Bring a big pot of water to boil and cook the noodles according to the directions. Some noodles take 3 minutes to reach al dente, some take 10 minutes. If you are using the curly lo mien noodles stir with a fork to help separate the noodles without breaking them. Be careful not to burn your hand and overcook the noodles. Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse in cold running water to stop the cooking. Once the noodles are cooled, shake out any excess water and carefully dump the noodles on a clean flour sack towel, or other lint free kitchen towel. Carefully pat the noodles lightly dry.
Plop the cooled noodles into a large mixing bowl add 2 teaspoon of dark sesame oil and using clean hands carefully toss the noodles until nicely coated. Set aside.
Make the sauce
In a medium mixing bowl add the toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame paste or tahini, peanut butter, brown sugar, chili garlic paste, black vinegar, minced garlic and minced ginger. With a wire whisk, whisk all the ingredients together until smooth and incorporated. Taste the sauce and correct the seasoning with using any of the sesame sauce ingredients you wish, if needed.
Add about 2/3 of the sauce to the noodles and toss with your clean hands to evenly coat the noodles. Taste and add more sauce if needed.
Drain the scallions and radishes and pat dry.
Add most of the remaining vegetables to the noodles, leaving some for a garnishing. Toss with your hands to mix together.
Scoop the cold sesame noodles out of the bowl and onto a serving dish and garnish with sesame seeds, chopped peanuts, cilantro if using, and remaining vegetables.
Do ahead note- If you make this in advance. Mix together the noodles and the vegetables and cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Make the sesame sauce and cover with plastic wrap and keep on the counter until ready to serve. Add the sauce to the noodles right before serving.
There are two types of sesame oil. One is light in color and the other is darker because it is made with toasted sesame seeds. This recipe uses the darker sesame oil and is found in health food stores, Asian markets, or the international food section at your grocery store. Store dark sesame oil in your refrigerator, especially if you do not use it that often. My favorite brand is Spectrum and found in Health Food Stores, Trader Joes, and Whole Foods.
Chili garlic paste is found in most Asian markets and similar too Sambal Oelek. You can substitute these items with Hot Chili oil if you cannot find them. Add a little and taste as you mix the sauce, then add more as needed. If you want to keep your costs down and already have Sriracha sauce, use that instead. It has a very different flavor from the garlic chili paste but it does have a nice spicy flavor.
Black vinegar is also a specialty item found in Asian Markets. It has a very strong flavor and adds some great depth to the sauce. I totally understand if you want to skip out on buying it, but it will last forever in a cool pantry and is used in many Asian food recipes.
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