Cold noodles with sesame sauce was cutting-edge Chinese in 1969, and New York City’s food adventurers were going to Chinatown to eat them at Hwa Yuan Szechuan Inn at 40 East Broadway, one of Chinatown’s first Szechuan restaurants. It was opened by Chef “Shorty” Tang, who became famous for the dish. Tragically, Shorty died in 1971. His family carried on for nearly a decade without him, but to their credit, the food remained as good as it was when Shorty was alive, and Shorty’s reputation continued to grow. In 1977, Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder, in their Underground Gourmet guide to New York City, note that Shorty “is reputed to be the culinary teacher of almost every Szechuan chef in town.” They seemed not to know that he had been dead for six years.
The noodles were, in fact, just one among many other more ambitious and totally exotic Szechuan delights that Shorty would no doubt have preferred to be remembered by. I was a poor newlywed at the time he opened and remember frequenting the restaurant for a few other things—somehow braised duck sticks in my memory. Besides serving food that was breathtakingly spicy, the complete opposite of the subtle, if not downright bland, Cantonese-style cooking that ruled the day, Hwa Yuan was affordable.
Cold noodles with sesame sauce is very much part of New York City today. Every so-called salad bar has them. Every Chinese take-out menu lists them. Hardly anyone still associates it with the rage for hot and spicy Hunan-Szechuan cooking that was so popular in the 1970s. Indeed, it doesn’t even have the pepper bite that it had when it was introduced back then. The following recipe suggests a range of pepper to suit your taste.
- 1¼ pounds fresh Chinese egg noodles, or 1 pound linguine or spaghetti
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 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
- ½ to 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, or more to taste
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
- 3 to 4 whole scallions, finely chopped
- 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and julienned
- Fresh coriander leaves (optional)
In about 5 quarts of boiling water salted with 1 rounded tablespoon salt, cook the noodles until done to taste. Drain immediately and rinse under cold running water until cooled. Place in a large bowl, drizzle with the vegetable oil, and toss well. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
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 or small whisk, beat the sesame paste or peanut butter together with the water until fairly smooth. Add the soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, cayenne pepper, sugar, and salt. Beat again until smooth.
Add the garlic and scallions, stir well, and let stand for at least 30 minutes, or until ready to serve.
(The sauce may be made several days ahead. Allow to return to room temperature before tossing it with the noodles.)
Toss the noodles with about 1½ cups of the sauce.
Serve topped with the remaining sauce, the cucumber, and coriander, if using.