Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Cold Sesame Noodles

LESLIE BUDEWITZ: One of the joys of travel is indulging in foods you don’t get to eat at home. I recently joined the national board of Mystery Writers of America, which meant a trip to New York for the annual orientation meeting. The board traditionally meets for dinner Friday night at a Chinese restaurant called Sammy’s Noodle Shop, in the central village area, along with a few local guests. (In the olden days, the board started the evening with a reception and book-buying spree at Partners In Crime mystery bookshop, which was located nearby; sadly, the store closed, but the food was so good that the yearly trek continues.)

The moment we sat down, one of the returning members said “My pick is Cold Sesame Noodles,” and others who’d been there before quickly agreed. And next year, I’ll be one of those returnees clamoring for Sammy’s Cold Sesame Noodles.  

So a few days later, when the NY Times “What to Cook Tonight” blog featured “Takeout-Style Sesame Noodles,” I knew what we were having for dinner. I love the story columnist Sam Sifton tells about an effort the Times food staff made a few years ago to “drill down into the taste history of sesame noodles in America,” in particular those in a particular NYC restaurant. (Not Sammy’s.) He calls the dish “the classic New York takeout,” and quotes a restaurateur who helped the journalists saying “The art is in the balance between the salt and sweet, the sweet and the fire, and the fire and the acidity.”


But where to get the ingredients, I wondered. “At the Asian grocery,” Mr. Right said, and I rolled my eyes. Our community offers many wonderful things, but ethnic takeout and groceries aren’t among them. Turns out, though, that there actually is a small Asian grocery on the west side of Kalispell, the “big town” twenty-five miles away. (Readers of my Food Lovers’ Village mysteries know it as Pondera.) In my defense, we live completely the opposite direction and it’s not an area I normally have a reason to venture. 

Mabuhay Market is a small, brightly-lit grocery packed with Asian ingredients of all kinds. Turned out, though, that the owner was in the Philippines visiting family, and the brother-in-law minding the shop did not know it as well as she does. We never did find sesame paste, so I made do with tahini. (Sifton says if you have to do that, add a little toasted sesame oil to up the flavor, and you made need some additional peanut butter to keep the sauce emulsifed. We didn’t, and we didn’t need to.) 

It also turned out that I could have found all the ingredients in the big grocery store in Kalispell, but it was more fun to venture into new surroundings.

A word on heat, both kinds: Although Sammy’s calls these cold noodles, the best temperature is lukewarm or room temperature. You can make them first and leave the dish on the counter while you ready the stir-fry or broccoli beef, and be quite happy. They do have a bit of a bite – they are Chinese, after all – but only a bit. You could increase it easily next time, if you’d like. 

The original recipe called for a pound of noodles; my package was 10 ounces and the amount of sauce was perfect – but we’re a saucy pair. I think 10-16 would work. It suggested frozen or fresh; no doubt they would be even better, but the dried worked beautifully. It also called for smooth peanut butter, presumably for better emulsification; chunky worked just fine. You could substitute chopped scallions for the cucumber if you’d like, and add 1-2 tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds, white or brown; neither is called for in the original. I have modified both the list of ingredients and instructions, based on my experience. 

Is it the flavor I craved after the trip to the Big Apple? You bet. Will that stop me from diving into the bowl at next year’s board dinner? No way!

Cold Sesame Noodles

1/4 cup chopped peanuts, toasted
10-16 ounces Chinese egg noodles (1/8-inch thick; often sold as Lo Mein noodles)
2 tablespoons sesame oil for the sauce, plus a splash for the cooked noodles
3 ½ tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese rice vinegar
2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste or tahini, well-mixed
1 tablespoon peanut butter (smooth or chunky)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger (fresh or jarred)
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons chili-garlic paste, or to taste
Half a cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced or julienned

Heat oven to 300 degrees. Toast the peanuts 10 minutes and remove from oven. Remember that they will continue to brown as they cool.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add noodles and cook until barely tender, about 5 minutes; they should be al dente, with a touch of chewiness. Drain, rinse with cold water, drain again and toss with a splash of sesame oil.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 2 tablespoons sesame oil, the soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame paste or tahini, peanut butter, sugar, ginger, garlic and chili-garlic paste.

Place the noodles in your serving bowl. Pour the sauce over the noodles and toss. Garnish with cucumber and peanuts. 

Do you enjoy eating "on the road" and recreating the dishes at home? Tell me, tell me!

"Budewitz's finely drawn characters, sharp ear for dialogue, and well-paced puzzle make Jewel Bay a destination for every cozy fan." --- Kirkus Reviews

From the cover of AS THE CHRISTMAS COOKIE CRUMBLES, Food Lovers' Village Mystery #5 (Midnight Ink,  available in trade paper, e-book, and audio):  

In Jewel Bay---Montana's Christmas Village---all is merry and bright. At Murphy’s Mercantile, AKA the Merc, manager Erin Murphy is ringing in the holiday season with food, drink, and a new friend: Merrily Thornton. A local girl gone wrong, Merrily’s turned her life around. But her parents have publicly shunned her, and they nurse a bitterness that chills Erin.

When Merrily goes missing and her boss discovers he’s been robbed, fingers point to Merrily—until she’s found dead, a string of lights around her neck. The clues and danger snowball from there. Can Erin nab the killer—and keep herself in one piece—in time for a special Christmas Eve?

Leslie Budewitz is the author of the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries and the Spice Shop Mysteries—and the first author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction. A past president of Sisters in Crime, she lives in northwest Montana with her husband, a musician and doctor of natural medicine, and their cat, an avid bird-watcher.

Swing by my website and join the mailing list for my seasonal newsletter. And join me on Facebook where I announce lots of giveaways from my cozy writer friends.


  1. That's such a great combination of ingredients--I find I'm using something like that on chicken, pork, and quite a few other things. And I think I'm in love with Sam Sifton--I keep saving his recipes from the NYT Sunday magazine.

    1. I love how he talks about food -- with familiarity and ease, but also with love and appreciation.

  2. Sesame noodles are wonderful and I see a craving fulfilled soon in my future.

  3. Yum yum and yum!
    Thanks for the suggestion.

    1. And of course, the leftovers are terrific. You can warm them slightly or not.

  4. I love cold sesame noodles! Thanks so much for the recipe ~