It seems I’m a bit obsessed with cold noodles these days. When it’s this hot outside, the last thing I feel like doing is cooking and spending a lot of time in the kitchen. The Chinese noodle dish liang mian/ma jiang mian, cold sesame sauce noodles, is perfect for preparing during the summer since it requires minimal cooking and is best served chilled or at room temperature. You just boil some noodles, slosh on some sauce and the whole thing comes together in about 20 minutes. It’s also really, really delicious. Jonathan, my wonderful test-tasting boyfriend, is a big fan.
One bite of this dish and I’m instantly transported back to Taiwan. While you can get fresh ma jiang mian at many road side noodle stands there, my memories are actually of the 7/11 version. In Taiwan, and in many Asian countries, 7/11s are everywhere, dotting nearly every other street corner (it’s actually a Japanese company dontchaknow). They are literally convenience stores – not only can you find all sorts of goods there, from potato chips to stationery to face wash, and a baffling variety of beverage options including alcohol, but you can even pay your bills and parking tickets there. Quite unlike the Canadian stores, however, where the meal offerings are limited to taquitos and some questionable looking hot dogs, Asian 7/11s sell an astounding assortment of fresh and actually tasty food – sandwiches, rice balls, curries, burgers, fried chicken, noodles. It’s quite a common option for hungry foreigners who aren’t up for tackling language barriers at a local restaurant. It seems like almost everyone eats there though as it’s quick, cheap and tasty. My friends and I used to eat their liang mian once in awhile and I remember it being pretty good.
Liang mian is also an extremely popular dish in the Sichuan region of mainland China, quite similar to the liang pi that I wrote about in a previous post, except that it uses wheat noodles rather than those jelly-like noodle skins. The dish also reminds me of my undergrad days in Montreal and the $2 chow mein slathered in peanut sauce that we used to get on St. Laurent on our late night walks home. For the record, I never really liked those noodles as the sauce was just straight up melted peanut butter, but who can argue with $2 at 3 am. Anyways, the recipe I made at home (below) is much tastier and probably costs less than $2 a serving.
There are about a million variations of liang mian. All of them typically include noodles – wheat, egg or buckwheat – tossed in a base sauce of sesame paste, vinegar, sugar and soy sauce, the measurements of which depend on the recipe and the cook’s taste preferences. The Sichuanese version also usually includes peanut butter, chili oil and crushed sichuan peppercorns in the sauce while the Taiwanese version does not. Some of the recipes call for minced garlic or ginger to be added. There is also great variety among toppings and garnishes, which may include shreds of cucumber, carrot, chicken and/or omelet, chopped scallions and toasted sesame seeds. Despite my memories of the 7/11 version of these noodles, I tend to prefer them spicy and so opted for a Sichuan style recipe from my favourite food blog, Rasamalaysia. I’ve made a ton of different recipes from this site, even non-noodles ones, and they’ve all been good. The recipe reproduced below is nearly the same as the one from Rasamalaysia, with some very minor variations.
A few quick tips about the recipe:
The base of the sauce is an Asian sesame paste (there are both Japanese and Chinese brands), which can be a bit tricky to find. I’ve bought it at T&T as well as the P.A.T. on Bloor and you can probably find it in most Asian grocery stores. If you’re unable or unwilling to find it though, some people, including Rasamalaysia, have suggested substituting it with the more common tahini – a Middle Eastern sesame paste – mixed with a bit of sesame oil. While tahini is made with hulled sesame seeds, the Asian paste uses the whole seed, lending it a more robust sesame flavour. I haven’t tried the tahini substitution myself and purists would probably turn their nose, but I’m sure it still tastes good.
The sauce of liang mian plays on a balance of salty, sweet, sour and spicy. Precise measurements are not super important as it depends on your taste buds. You can make it as per the recipe below, and then play around with the ingredients a bit until you reach a flavour balance that suits you. I favour salty and am averse to overly sweet so I modified the original recipe a bit by using unsweetened peanut butter. I used seasoned rice vinegar because that’s what I had at home, but found it a bit too sweet rather than a punchy sour/acid and will probably try black vinegar next time. The recipe also calls for sweet soy sauce, which I happened to have, but you can use regular soy sauce and add a couple pinches of sugar to taste.
I used buckwheat (soba) noodles and think their flavour and texture goes really well with the sauce, but wheat or egg noodles would work well too. Whichever you choose, make sure to not over-cook them as the springy noodle texture is an important component of this, and almost every, noodle dish.
So here’s the recipe. Let me know if you make them at home and how it turns out.
Recipe for Cold Sesame Noodles
8 oz. buckwheat (soba) noodles (or fresh egg or wheat noodles)
2 small cucumbers
1 small carrot
Toasted sesame seeds
2 1/2 tablespoons sesame paste (or 2 tablespoons tahini + 1 tablespoon sesame oil)
1 tablespoon unsweetened peanut butter
1 1/2 tablespoons sweet soy sauce (or regular soy sauce + a couple pinches of sugar, but just soy sauce will taste fine too)
2 teaspoons vinegar (rice, black or balsamic)
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon chili oil (or more or less )
salt and sugar to taste
- Boil the noodles in salted water according to the package instructions. Drain and rinse in cold running water. Shake out all the excess water and set aside.
- Slice the cucumbers lengthwise, into two halves. De-seed each half using a small spoon. Slice cucumber into long, thin strands. Cut the strands into approx. 2 inch lengths.
- Peel the carrot (I actually used baby carrots which don’t require peeling and are easy to slice up). Slice into long, thin strands. Cut the strands into approx. 2 inch lengths.
- Mix all the sesame sauce ingredients together in a bowl. Taste and adjust according to your preference.
- In a large mixing bowl, spoon generous amounts of the sauce onto the noodles. Add the cucumber, carrot and scallions and mix it all together. Refrigerate for about 15 minutes (or if you can’t wait, just serve at room temperature).
- Portion the noodles into individual bowls. Garnish with some more cucumber, carrot and scallions (and some more sauce if you want). Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Eat!