When an ethnic dish becomes really popular, I tend to get suspicious. Compare the typical pizza parlor slice cut from a cartwheel-size pie oozing cheese to the true Neapolitan pizza, a dinner plate-size disk lightly topped with sauce and cheese, then graced with fresh basil. In this light, I wondered how Chinese cooks would make another ethnic favorite, sesame noodles.

To learn whether this much-loved and comforting creamy pasta is even authentic, I telephoned Grace Young, aka the stir-fry queen, thanks to her cookbooks, Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge and The Breath of a Wok. Grace, who grew up in San Francisco, is steeped in knowledge about both Chinese and Chinese-American cooking. Cold sesame noodles, she verified, are indeed a Sichuan favorite; the velvety sauce balances slight sweetness with a hit of heat that livens up chewy wheat noodles.

In China, sesame paste, a thick, grainy blend of roasted sesame seeds, has been used as the sauce's base until recently. The Chinese had peanuts centuries before the United States even existed, Grace explained, but used them only whole or chopped. Chinese restaurants here, though, turned to American peanut butter because it is cheaper, and since it is homogenized, it is faster to blend. Sadly, she added, using peanut butter is now gaining popularity in China, too.

To indulge my fondness for this dish, I like tossing the quickly made sauce with steamed broccoli instead of noodles, a delicious combination that turns eating veggies into a treat.

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Using natural, unsweetened peanut butter, vinegar plus lime juice, and a touch of agave gives the sauce a perfect balance of creamy tang and sweetness. If you do not share the Sichuan taste for heat, reduce or omit the pepper flakes.

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Broccoli Salad with Peanut Dressing

Makes 4 servings.


  • 4 cups broccoli florets
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, cut in thin strips, about 1 cup
  • 1/3 cup red onion, cut in thin crescents
  • 3 Tbsp. smooth peanut butter, natural and unsweetened
  • 2 tsp. roasted sesame oil
  • 1-2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
  • 1 Tbsp. reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tsp. agave syrup
  • Pinch of salt
  • Ground black pepper
  • Red pepper flakes, optional


  1. Place steamer basket in large saucepan. Add water to depth of 1 inch. Cover and bring the water to boil. Add broccoli, cover and steam over medium-high heat until tender-crisp, 3 minutes. Transfer broccoli to mixing bowl. Add bell pepper and onion.
  2. In small bowl, combine peanut butter and sesame oil. Add vinegar, lime juice, soy sauce and agave and whisk until dressing is smooth. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper. Pour dressing over vegetables and use fork to toss until salad is well coated. Sprinkle on red pepper flakes, if using, and mix to combine. Cover, and refrigerate the salad for 1 hour before serving, or up to 24 hours. Toss well before serving.

Nutritional Information Per Serving:
146 calories
9 g fat
2 g sat fat
17 g carbohydrates
6 g protein
4 g fiber
255 mg sodium