The Food Maven Diary
Spicy Chinese Sesame Sauce
Sorry, but I've been in computer crisis. First I tried to get my old system to do the things this web-site requires. It couldn't. Then I bought a new system. Then I had to return the new computer because it was a lemon. Then I had to get the substitute up and running, then transfer very stubborn files, then get to know the new system (a task still in progress). Whew! I hope you'll excuse the delay it has caused in filing diary items.
Well, at 10 p.m. Monday, when I was at wit's end after a day of computer disasters (don't ask, there's more) and there was nothing else to be done, I decided to give in and order a bite to eat from my local Chinese take-out. I played it safe. I thought. I ordered cold chicken with spicy sesame sauce. What I got was shredded cold chicken on shredded iceberg lettuce. No sauce. After a call, they delivered the sauce 20 minutes later. Mighty disappointing sauce, too.
So I thought it was pretty ironic that the very next day a listener called Food Talk asking for a recipe for Chinese spicy sesame sauce – the kind one uses on cold noodles or chicken. He had made a sauce with what he thought were the right ingredients, but it was lacking he said. What did I think was missing, he wanted to know.
I knew I had at least one, if not more, versions of the recipe in my files and in cookbooks I've written, but I couldn't think of what was missing in his. It gave me an excuse to delve into the matter for a day or so.
Now that I've looked at and made (and eaten) several recipes, what I think was missing from my listener's sauce was vinegar, the acid edge that it needs to balance out the unctuous texture and flavor of the sesame or peanut butter.
Americans have developed more of a taste for acid in the last decade or so. You may not be aware of it, but tart or sour flavors have never been popular here. We like sweetness. But through all the foreign, especially Asian influences we've absorbed into our cooking, we now appreciate acid.
Chinese sesame sauce – it really struck a chord. I got a couple of calls that day on the air, suggesting recipes to check out. And I have since received several e-mails about it. In response, I've made three different recipes – mine from eons ago, Nina Simonds', from her wonderful book Asian Noodles, and the version that is in the new edition of Joy of Cooking . The last recipe was suggested by a father from Pennsylvania who stays home with his children -- and cooks. He says he kids love it.
Not just because it's my recipe (okay, maybe a little because it's my recipe), I liked my version best. It has real oomph, which is to say a good amount of ground cayenne pepper, plus some complexity. Nina Simonds' is, I suppose, a more refined recipe, more subtle, and knowing Nina as I do, perhaps a more authentic recipe. But it was a bit too sweet for me (and my little group of tasters) and we wanted more pepper. The "Joy of Cooking" recipe was the thickest, and sweetest, and strangely not very spicy, even with chili oil and fresh chiles. I liked the addition of tea as a loosening liquid, however. I don't think it is authentically Chinese, but who cares?. I might try it in my recipe next time, instead of the water. It would offer another background flavor.
I'm offering all three recipes today. In case you try more than one, please report back on your favorite.
Arthur Schwartz's Hot Sesame Sauce
Makes 2 cups
7 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste or 100% natural peanut butter
2/3 cup warm water
6 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 to 3 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
3 to 4 whole scallions, chopped fine
If the sesame paste or peanut butter has separated, drive a chopstick repeatedly into it so you can mix the oil in sufficiently to stir, although it needn't be perfectly smooth at this point.
In a small mixing bowl, with a fork, beat the sesame paste or peanut butter with the water until fairly smooth. Add the soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, cayenne pepper, sugar, and salt. Beat until smooth.
Add the garlic and scallions, stir well, and let stand at least 30 minutes or until ready to serve. (May be made several days ahead. Allow to return to room temperature before serving.)
Nina Simonds' Spicy Sesame Dressing
Makes about 2 cups
8 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced in half
1 1/2-inch thick slice fresh ginger, peeled
7 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste or smooth peanut butter, stirred well to blend
5 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
5 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup Chinese rice wine or sake
1 1/2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar or Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons water
In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, or in a blender, finely chop the garlic and ginger.
Add the remaining ingredients in the order listed and process to blend. The dressing should be the consistency of heavy cream. If it is too thin, add up to 2 tablespoons additional sesame paste.
Refrigerated, in a covered container, the dressing will keep for up to a week.
Spicy Peanut Sesame Sauce
From "The All New All Purpose Joy Of Cooking"
Makes about 4 cups
Thoroughly blend in a food processor:
2 cups natural unsalted smooth peanut butter
1/2 cup rice or white vinegar
1/4 cup light soy sauce
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons small pieces garlic
2 to 6 serrano or fresh chili peppers, cut into pieces
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
Remove the peanut butter mixture to s medium bowl. Stir in:
1/2 cup toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons chili oil
Gradually stir in until smooth:
1 cup freshly brewed black tea
The sauce can be covered and refrigerated for 1 to 2 days. Allow to return to room temperature before using.