Over the years—no, decades—one of the hardest dishes for me to re-create at home was Cold Sesame Noodles. I ordered them almost every time I ate at a Chinese restaurant (as a vegetarian; unfortunately most places use egg noodles). I adored those thin noodles tossed with the sweet-salty, peanuty, sesame-infused sauce. But I could never get close to the taste and texture in my own kitchen, no matter what recipe I tried. Until now.
Eureka! The secret ingredient!
Finally a recipe by Sam Sifton in the New York Times for Takeout-Style Sesame Noodles clued me into roasted sesame paste, also known as Chinese sesame paste. It’s a thick, dark-brown paste made from roasted sesame seeds.
Where to find it
You can find roasted sesame paste in Asian grocery stores or online. I drove to the closest Asian grocery store here in Portland and found the elusive ingredient with the help of the staff. The kind I got is translated as “Original sesame jam,” and, in addition to sesame seeds, it contains a little soybean oil, soybeans, and peanuts. There are brands made with 100% sesame seeds (for example, Wang Zhihe Pure Sesame Paste available on Amazon).
Not the same as tahini
You may be familiar with tahini—a paste made from raw or lightly roasted sesame seeds. Chinese sesame paste smells and tastes more like sesame oil than tahini. Its glorious deep-roasted taste has a slightly bitter edge that only enhances the flavor, in my opinion. It will not be a strange, new flavor if you have used and liked sesame oil.
Cooking with roasted sesame paste
The good news for health-conscious cooks is that roasted sesame paste can substitute for sesame oil in many recipes. In recipes where sesame oil is used in a sauce, you can experiment by substituting the same measure of sesame paste as oil, plus the same measure of water as oil.
My adaptation of Sam Sifton’s Takeout-Style Sesame Noodles recipe—Cold Sesame Noodles, Without Oil—eliminates the sesame oil, increases the sesame paste and water, offers an alternative to sugar (date paste), and has notes about non-egg noodle choices.
It’s very, very thick
Be aware that sesame paste is quite thick, so you need to make sure that any thick lumps are smoothed out before putting it into a recipe, unless you’re adding it to a blender or food processor, in which case the lumps will be taken care of. I use a fork to mix the paste in its jar before measuring out what I need, the same way I wrestle with tahini and natural peanut butter to achieve a smooth texture.