27 March 2009

Oddles of Noodles

Not long after I met Christiane, I was reading one of her menus when I asked her to describe her sesame noodles. Chalk it up to my Oklahoma upbringing, but I'd never had this dish before. I was half embarrassed that I hadn't even heard of it.

I knew that it was an Asian dish, but beyond that I knew nothing. When I was in elementary school, there was a strip mall bordering our subdivision, and nestled in the middle was a Chinese restaurant. I don't know the actual name, and frankly in that place at that time "Chinese" was the ubiquitous term for anywhere that served fried rice and egg drop soup. This helps explain some of my perceptions I later learned to label as misconceptions. Like the time I asked my roommate Joan, who is Filipino, if she grew up using chopsticks (before you think I'm a complete idiot, she was eating with chopsticks during this conversation). The Jersey girl told me she didn't start using them regularly until she moved to San Francisco for grad school.

I am proud to say that I learned more in college than how to fill a Blue Book thanks to friends such as Joan. I came to understand there are thousands of variances in Asian cuisine. In fact, to think otherwise would be like thinking that all North American food tasted the same. And, of course, we recognize that even here in the United States there are variations of the same dish from region to region, such as how Memphis barbecue is different than Texas barbecue and New England chowder is different than the bowls full of it we eat on the Oregon coast. And then there are even those dishes that slip in and catch the tidal wave of hip just by being fresh and new.

That's how sesame noodles came to us. According to a New York Times story, sesame noodles, or Szechuan noodles, became popular in New York in the 1970s and '80s as a fun, flavorful new take on Chinese takeout. They are typically served cold and soon became a new standard in Chinese food - at least in that corner of the country.

Today there are lots of recipes out there for sesame noodles, which now are just as frequently called peanut noodles. Many of those recipes include nothing more than peanut butter, soy sauce and chili oil. And many of them aren't nearly this good. I can't say how this recipe holds up to the New York dish, but I can say that I haven't met someone who doesn't like these noodles. Don't feel daunted by the long list of ingredients. Most of them are things you may already have in the pantry, and even if you don't, they don't spoil quickly.

And as if this dish needs to be any more appealing, it is easy to make and can be refrigerated until serving. That makes them perfect for a busy day, leftover lunches or a picnic in the park. You can serve them naked except for their sauce or top them with sliced peppers, green onions and black sesame seeds. When I make them as a dinner, I top them with lots of steamed veggies.

Szechuan Noodles
From Ina Garten

6 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup tahini
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1/2 cup good soy sauce
1/4 cup dry sherry
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon hot chili oil
2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pound spaghetti

Place garlic and ginger in food processor. Add remaining ingredients, except pasta, and puree to a smooth sauce.

Cook pasta until al dente (do not overcook as pasta will absorb the sauce as it sets). Drain well.

Combine sauce and pasta until pasta is thoroughly coated. Refrigerate until ready to serve, giving it about 15 to 20 minutes to come up to room temperature before eating.

Top with sliced bell peppers and green onions.

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