When I was growing up in the great state of California, our house never had air conditioning. Despite the shade that the humongous avocado tree in the backyard provided for the house, summer would be very, very hot.
I remember many hot nights of sleeping next to my sister on the large area rug under the dining table, in the one room that had a window air conditioning unit. It was also common to see my dad walking around the house without a shirt! (Is there a more economical way to cool oneself, anyway?)
As a remedy for these hot summer days, my mom would make liang2mian4, also known as 涼麵 or cold noodles, for dinner. Whereas we would rinse the noodles with cold water to speed up the cooling process, my mom’s job as a kid, assigned by her grandmother, would be to cool the noodles by fanning them!
If my mom’s job as a kid on 涼麵 days was to fan the noodles, my job was to make the sesame paste sauce. My mom would hand me the jar of zhi1ma2jiang4 (not to be confused with the game, mahjong) so I could scoop some into a bowl, asking “more?” until she said that it was enough. I learned how to adjust the ratio of sesame paste to water, adding more of one or the other until I got a nice consistency of ‘paste’: not too thin, not too thick.
I knew I wanted to make cold noodles because of the warm weather, and I knew that I had leftovers of romaine lettuce, red cabbage, and carrots from previous cooking days. The first thought that came to mind was the question of authenticity. I’m sure they don’t use cabbage and romaine in Taiwan. I remember romaine in cold noodles from Silk Road Express, a Chinese cafe on JHU’s campus! But other than that, I had never eaten it in cold noodles; after all, I’m quite sure romaine lettuce is not a frequently eaten vegetable in Taiwan.
I’ve been thinking about “authenticity” lately. I remember that we would more often than not, eat spaghetti noodles in our liang2mian4. Why? It
happened to be the noodles that we had in the house. Then I thought, if my mom used spaghetti, I should be able to use nontraditional vegetables if that’s all I got. Apparently, my mom was open to using substitutes in order to feed her ravenous husband and children without another trip to a store. Sounds logical, right? These is a place and time for substitutions, I have come to realize more and more.
Although my favorite cold noodles are still my mom’s version, I enjoyed today’s as well (so did Tim!). I’ll provide both versions. In my family, liang2mian4 was DIY, and I would encourage you to do the same.
I can tell you that sesame paste and tahini are very different, both in color and taste. My research tells me that Chinese-style sesame paste is made from unhulled sesame seeds, whereas tahini is made from hulled sesame seeds. The difference in color seems consistent with that claim. The sesame paste shown above is made from white sesame seeds and should not be confused with sesame paste made from black sesame seeds (used in Chinese desserts).
8-12 ounces thin wheat noodles or spaghetti
2 heaping cups carrots, julienned
2 heaping cups red cabbage or mung bean sprouts, julienned
2 heaping cups romaine lettuce or English cucumbers, julienned
2 eggs, lightly beaten with 2 pinches of salt (optional)
1/2 lb chicken/pork, sliced as thinly as possible into 2 inch pieces (think matchsticks)
~1 Tbsp soy sauce
~1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp Shaoxing wine (with pork)
3 tsp oil
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp unseasoned rice vinegar
2 Tbsp water
2 tsp sugar
Sesame paste “sauce”
3 Tbsp sesame paste
4-6 Tbsp water
Mix until it is similar to the consistency of melted ice cream; the goal is for it to be pourable but not too dilute.
Chili Oil (optional)
Sichuan peppercorns, finely ground (very optional)
1) (Optional) To make the egg omelet, beat the eggs and salt together in a bowl. Heat a nonstick or cast iron skillet with 1 tsp oil, then pour the egg on the skillet, trying to spread it out as thinly as possible. Cook on medium heat to slowly cook the egg, only slightly browning it on the underside, until the top is 75% cooked (the edges will be more solid). Flip the omelet and continue cooking through. Cool and slice thinly.
2) Marinate the chicken or pork in enough soy sauce and cornstarch to just lightly coat the meat; do not drown it. For those using pork, add about 1 tsp Shaoxing wine as well (to tone down the porky flavor).
3) Heat oil in a skillet until it is hot, and cook the meat over high heat until it is done, ~3-5 minutes (depends on how weak or strong your stove is.
4) Boil a pot of water that will be used to cook the noodles. When the pot comes to a boil, add the carrots and cook until the carrots are just crisp tender. Remove with a slotted spoon and bring the pot back to a boil for mung bean sprouts, if you are using them. For bean sprouts, cook briefly (~10-15 seconds) and remove with a slotted spoon.
5) Bring the same water back to a boil, then cook the noodles until they are al dente. Drain noodles with a colander and rinse with cold water (or fan with a fan if you want to be old school) until the noodles are cool. If not using the noodles right away, mix a few spoonfuls of oil into the noodles to prevent them from sticking to one another.
6) Let the eater assemble his/her own bowl: noodles, vegetables, protein, sesame sauce, garlic water, some soy sauce, a few pinches of salt and maybe a small splash or sesame oil. I personally like mine with lots of sesame sauce and a good amount of chili oil. In our house, it was always a taste-as-you-go experience. Enjoy!
-Amounts of vegetables and meat needed may vary depending on the eaters’ appetites.
-More often than not, we would eat cold noodles with either leftover chicken after drinking all the chicken soup, or hand-shredded leftover Costco rotisserie chicken. Feel free to do the same.
-No typo here- the water that the noodles are cooked is in unsalted. Why? I’ve never seen any Chinese person salt their cooking water for noodles, and that’s the way everyone in my family cooks Chinese noodles. If you use spaghetti for this dish, salted or unsalted water is your call.
-To make ahead, you can mix everything together EXCEPT for the sesame sauce. Leave that out until right before you eat, otherwise the noodles will absorb the liquid over time and you will have chunky flecks of sesame paste on your noodles. Not so good!
-If you are unable to find sesame paste in your part of town, a substitute that my sister and I discussed together was a 50/50 tahini/peanut butter mixture. Unsweetened peanut butter is preferred, but if you only have sweetened peanut butter, omit the sugar in the garlic water mixture, and keep in mind that your final noodles may be on the sweeter side.