How to cook with sesame paste

In the summer, my parents like to mix cold noodles with a sauce made from toasted sesame paste. One of the first kitchen tasks they delegated to me was to make this dressing. I took on the responsibility with relish, not only because the sesame noodles are downright slurpable, but also because it meant digging into a jar of sesame paste and being able to lick the spoon off afterwards.

My childhood fridge could go without milk or eggs, but running out of sesame paste could mean a late trip to the grocery store. Called zhīma jiàng in Chinese, sesame paste is made from unhulled white sesame seeds that are roasted until brown and ground into a thick, creamy paste. This versatile condiment lends its rich, nutty taste and deep, earthy aroma to both sweet and savory dishes. My parents showed me how to layer it into shaobing (a northern Chinese flatbread), mix it into dips for dumplings and hot pot, and dilute it for drizzling steamed vegetables. Every time they cook with it, the house smells of sesame all day long, that’s how it is scented.

Tahini is sometimes listed as a substitute for sesame paste, but in my mind the two are not interchangeable. Although tahini is also made from white sesame seeds, they are usually unroasted or lightly toasted. In comparison, toasted sesame paste is more assertive and aromatic and also thicker in texture.

Following my parents’ wisdom, I always have a jar of sesame paste in the fridge – it’s my desert island ingredient! – and I use it to brighten up noodles, pastries and grilled meats. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll make it myself by toasting the sesame seeds until golden brown, cooling them, then grinding them in a food processor with just enough sesame oil (gradually poured) to make a paste. Here are some of my favorite ways to use the finished dough, whether homemade or store bought.

Add nutty flavor to noodles and salads

Next time you’re making a dressing for noodles or a salad, start with a spoonful of toasted sesame paste in a bowl. Dilute with sesame oil and water, then add vinegar or citrus juice, a spoonful of chili sauce or flakes and a little soy. You’ll end up with a sauce that coats everything it touches with aromatic creaminess. Try my Sesame Quick Noodles cold or at room temperature, these are my warm weather go-tos.

Mix it into meat and vegetable dips

To make an easy dip for grilled protein and veggies, thin the toasted sesame paste with something creamy and tangy like full-fat Greek yogurt. My 30-second savory rendition would taste great with meat skewers or celery sticks, while a sweet version would pair well with apple slices or even toast: When I was a kid, my parents raved about often sesame and jelly sandwiches instead of the usual peanut butter.

Swap a serving of fat in pastries

A recent revelation about the endless potential of toasted sesame paste came in the form of baked goods. Due to its high fat content, toasted sesame paste can be replaced with a serving of butter or oil in many desserts, infusing them with an extra nutty flavor. I think sesame goes particularly well with fresh and cooked fruit in crumbles, pies and pies – I can’t get enough of these sesame blondies sprinkled with dried red gummies, which add a subtle sweetness.


Jujube Sesame Blondies

Photography by Linda Xiao; Food styling by Jason Schreiber; Accessories styling by Summer Moore

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Sesame sauce 30 seconds

Sesame Sauce Dip

Photography by Linda Xiao; Food styling by Jason Schreiber; Accessories styling by Summer Moore

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Chinese sesame noodles

Sesame noodles

Photography by Linda Xiao; Food styling by Jason Schreiber; Accessories styling by Summer Moore

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