Sam Sifton's Sesame Noodles
April 08, 2007
I seem to be a woman of empty threats. Because even though I made it seem like one more day without a plate of Sesame Noodles would be a dire one indeed, I actually survived for four more days thereafter. (Is that the sound of a thousand people falling over in shock at the news? I know, unbelievable.) But after four days of fruitless searching, and just as many grocery stores, I decided this morning that I'd had enough. I got in the subway to go down to the source itself, Chinatown, to finally lay my hands on an apparently elusive creation, the fresh Chinese egg noodle. What I got in return was something far, far greater.
Isn't that exciting?
But first things first. At the Dynasty Supermarket on the corner of Elizabeth and Hester, I found my noodles. Well, actually, not really. But close enough. You see, the refrigerated fresh noodle section was crammed with all sorts of noodles, but infuriatingly, none of them were labeled in a manner that would appease the little Type A in me. There were noodles galore, for sure, "Shanghai" noodles and "shrimp" noodles and "vegetable" noodles and, maddeningly, "plain" noodles. Some of them had eggs in them, some didn't. But were there any labeled "egg" noodles? No.
The closest I got was with a bag of "lo mein" noodles that had eggs in them, but were far, far skinnier than the 1/8th of an inch Sam Sifton called for. Noodles in his size were only available eggless. I mulled my choices for far too long, decided the world would not end if I made Sesame Noodles with 1/16-inch wide noodles and got on with my day (and thank goodness I did, because otherwise I think I might still be there, dithering away).
(And here I have to stop and just quickly mention the whopping 98 cents I paid for that pound of egg noodles. 98 cents! When will fresh Italian egg pasta ever be that cheap?)
As I made my way up Elizabeth, I kept my eyes peeled for a vegetable stand. Something about the early morning air and the atmosphere of hungry shoppers and pushy sellers had me feeling adventurous. Actually, it's how I usually feel when I'm in Chinatown, like I'm standing on the precipice of some huge, unknowable mountain of information about really, really good food that I simply can't decipher, but very much want to. Usually I satiate my curiosity by eating at a Chinese restaurant, but that never really solves the problem. So today, instead of going home and buying wilted broccoli from D'Agostino's, I decided I'd buy some real Chinese vegetables and cook them myself.
The vegetable stand I stopped at had several rows of good-looking greens, baby bok choy and green beans being the only ones I recognized. I pointed to what I thought was Chinese broccoli and asked the grocer to confirm what I was buying. I might as well have been speaking in, well, English.
She pointed to the price and nodded nicely. I tried asking her a few more times, even prodding her with the word for Chinese broccoli (gai lan), but this received no reaction. Just a few more points to the sign, decidedly less friendly by the minute. So I acquiesced and bought a pound of the stuff. (For $1.60! And this after I spent $5.99 per pound on Mr. Spear asparagus at Balducci's on Friday.) (I know, I know, I always say I'll never go back there and then I do. What can I say, I'm a woman of low moral fiber.) The grocer pointed me towards another vendor working there as I pocketed my change, as if to say "that guy, he'll know what you're trying to say, now move along, there are people who actually make sense waiting to order".
The other grocer did seem to understand that I was asking what the vegetable I'd just purchased was called and kept repeating "toi sam" (spelling, obviously, not guaranteed by yours truly) over and over, nodding. So I assumed I'd bought a pound of toi sam. Delicious! But at home, the internet produced precious little information on toi sam and insisted on telling me that the vegetable I'd purchased was indeed none other than Chinese broccoli.
What was the point of relaying every step of my purchase to you? I was trying, I suppose, to make you realize how exhilarating the whole exchange was. It felt like I was navigating that aforementioned huge mountain of knowledge with a dinky, little, rudderless boat full of enthusiasm and good intentions but very little else. I wish I had a guide to bring with me to Chinatown every day, to slowly and carefully teach me about all the vegetables on display at those overwhelming sidewalk stands: how to cut them, how to prepare them, how to serve them. (Don't even get me started on the fruit offerings or fish.) What does serving bok choy with mushrooms signify? Will I ever have the courage to purchase loofah or bitter melon? Why do Chinese scallions come in so many different forms?
I guess that Chinese food just totally bewitches me (thank God for Fuchsia Dunlop, who has at least given me some insight into Sichuan food, though that seemed totally indequate today). But before I go all starry-eyed and make Fuchsia adopt me to teach me the rest of what I have to learn, let me quickly tell you about the food I actually cooked.
First, Sam Sifton's sesame noodles. Which are fine, I guess, though I think the dish's appeal lies more in the sensuous mouthfeel of dressed noodles than in the taste. You mix together a pungent sauce of various oils and vinegars and sauces and nut butters, throw in some grated ginger, minced garlic and whisk it all into a dark sludge. The egg noodles are boiled briefly, then rinsed in cold water, dressed with the sauce and topped with chopped peanuts. They're spicy, to be sure, and relatively nuanced - zesty might be the word I'm looking for. But what I really liked was the texture - chewy and silky and slithery and cool, with little bits of peanut adding a pleasing crunch here and there.
The real revelation of the day, though? Was the Chinese broccoli. Oh yes. I made this recipe and have decided that it might be my new favorite thing in the world to eat. It is so good and so totally, entirely easy. Which made my day even more. Not only did I buy my first Chinese vegetable (well, I have bought baby bok choy before, but that was at Whole Foods and so doesn't count) today, but I made a dish so delicious it tasted like the vegetables do at my favorite Chinese restaurants. Yes, that good! I'm speechless with joy.
Ben and I ate our noodles dutifully, but then set upon the savory-sweet Chinese broccoli like a pair of starving urchins. I am alternately proud and embarrassed to admit that we finished the entire pound in one sitting. How could I have been so short-sighted? Next time, two pounds, at least.
I think this means that I have to get myself to Chinatown more often. I need to explore and discover and learn. If Americanized sesame noodles brought me to Hong Kong-style gai lan, then who knows what the future will bring? I can't wait to find out.
Takeout-Style Sesame Noodles
1 pound Chinese egg noodles (1/8-inch-thick), frozen or (preferably) fresh, available in Asian markets
2 tablespoons sesame oil, plus a splash
3½ tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese rice vinegar
2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste
1 tablespoon smooth peanut butter
1 teaspoon sugar (the original recipe calls for 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons chili-garlic paste, or to taste
¼ cup chopped roasted peanuts.
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add noodles and cook until barely tender, about 5 minutes; they should retain a hint of chewiness. Drain, rinse with cold water, drain again and toss with a splash of sesame oil.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 2 tablespoons sesame oil, the soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame paste, peanut butter, sugar, ginger, garlic and chili-garlic paste.
3. Pour the sauce over the noodles and toss. Transfer to a serving bowl, and garnish with cucumber and peanuts.