The one thing I didn’t fully consider when I made the move west from New York City 14 years ago was the food situation. When I told my landlord in New York that we were moving to Los Angeles, he said, “Oy! No place to eat!”
I understood his viewpoint. Within a 10-block walk north or south in our Upper West Side neighborhood there was great Chinese, Southern, Kosher, Cajun, Mexican (several different kinds!), South American, pizza, bagels, and pretty much any other thing you felt like eating.
The first few years in Los Angeles were challenging, but I eventually found good bagels and decent pizza―the two things ex-pat New Yorkers most complain about. Szechuan Chinese is also elusive in Los Angeles, and notably absent is one of my favorite dishes, cold sesame noodles. I love cold sesame noodles so much, I should probably write an entire book dedicated to them, or at least a song.
When I got pregnant with Max, I had just started a staff job at an art-history magazine in Soho. Chinatown, Little Italy and the West Village were all within lunchtime walking distance, but for the first four and a half months of my pregnancy all I could stomach was blueberry Pop-Tarts. Then I flew to Los Angeles for work and something shifted. Maybe it was the warm ocean breeze in Santa Monica; flying over Sedona, Arizona; or a glitch in the matrix, but my appetite returned in full force.
Back in New York, lunchtime became an adventure. For the next 10 weeks, until the massive heartburn kicked in, I could eat anything. I would often walk up to a hole-in-the-wall Szechuan place near NYU and order my beloved cold noodles: no meat, no bean sprouts and extra carrots. Some days they’d be more peppery than others, but the noodles were always perfectly cooked and cold―nothing is worse than warm cold noodles―and the cucumbers and carrots were always crispy and refreshing.
When I finally found good cold noodles in Los Angeles (Pasadena, actually, at Yang Chow), after many heartbreaking tries, I knew I’d be hunkering down here for a while. I guess it’s no wonder that Max also loves cold noodles, with no bean sprouts or meat. Or vegetables.
I’d been trying for several years to make these at home. Each attempt was hotly anticipated, but always ended in misery, with Max pushing away his bowl, telling me, “These don’t taste anything like Yang Chow,” and me discarding the remains. Then I found a recipe for them in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I tweaked it a bit and finally came up with something both Max and I liked. When I make these at home, I make sure to eat some before Max is around because once he sits down to consume, it isn’t long before the bowl is empty and he’s asking when I’m going to make some more.
Cold Peanut-Sesame Noodles
Serves 4, or 1 if you are a teenage boy
I like crunchy peanut butter for this but smooth is just as good. If you want to add bean sprouts or chicken, feel free. You can also add some minced scallions as a garnish. The heat is a bit on the tame side, so if you like hotter sauce, add more cayenne or some chili oil. Whatever you do, don’t eat these warm. Really cool them off before combining with the sauce. Warm cold noodles put me in a foul mood, and I wouldn’t want you to think they aren’t worthy simply because you didn’t cool them off enough.
1 cup peanut butter
3 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon agave nectar
3 tablespoons soy sauce, or to taste
1 teaspoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon mirin
½ tablespoon rice vinegar
Dash cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound spaghetti or other long noodle
1 large cucumber
2 large carrots
Roasted sesame seeds for garnish
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt it liberally.
2. While water is coming to a boil, whisk together peanut butter, sesame oil, agave, soy sauce, ground ginger, mirin, rice vinegar, cayenne and black peppers. When water boils, before adding the noodles, take out ¾ cup water and whisk in to the sauce. Sauce should be the consistency of heavy cream. Taste it and add more of whatever you think it needs―ginger, soy sauce, agave, pepper. Put it in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.
3. Cook noodles per package instructions. Drain and run under cold water until the heat is gone. Drain again. Run under cool water again. Drain. Can you see how serious I am about getting the heat off the noodles?
4. Whisk sauce and toss noodles with it. Peel carrots and cucumber and shave off strips. Top noodles with them. Sprinkle a bit of salt onto the veggies. Garnish with roasted sesame seeds. Leftovers will keep in the fridge for a few days. Unless you have a teenager.