In the summertime, my parents like to toss cold noodles with a sauce starring toasted sesame paste. One of the first kitchen tasks they ever delegated to me was making that dressing. I shouldered the responsibility with relish—not only because sesame noodles are downright slurpable, but also because it meant digging into a jar of sesame paste and being able to lick the spoon afterward.
My childhood fridge could do without milk or eggs, but running out of sesame paste could prompt a late-night trip to the grocery. Called zhīma jiàng in Chinese, sesame paste is made from unhulled white sesame seeds that are toasted until brown and ground into a thick and creamy paste. The versatile condiment lends its rich, nutty punch 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 dipping sauces for dumplings and hot pot, and thin it out to drizzle over steamed vegetables. Whenever they cook with it, the house smells like sesame all day—that’s how fragrant it is.
Tahini is sometimes listed as a substitute for sesame paste, but in my mind, the two aren’t interchangeable. Though tahini is also made from white sesame seeds, they’re usually untoasted or lightly toasted. By 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 use it to jazz up noodles, pastries, and grilled meats. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll make it myself by toasting sesame seeds until golden, cooling them, and then grinding them in a food processor with just enough sesame oil (dribbled in gradually) to make a paste. Here are a few of my favorite ways to use the finished paste, whether homemade or store bought.
Add Nutty Flavor to Noodles and Salads
The next time you’re churning up a dressing for noodles or a salad, start with a dollop of toasted sesame paste in a bowl. Thin it out with sesame oil and water, then add vinegar or citrus juice, a spoonful of chile sauce or flakes, and a splash of soy. You’ll wind up with a sauce that coats whatever it touches with aromatic creaminess. Try my quick sesame noodles cold or at room temperature—they’re my warm-weather go-to.
Mix It Into Dipping Sauces for Meats and Vegetables
To make an easy dip for grilled proteins and vegetables, thin out the toasted sesame paste with something creamy and tangy such as full-fat Greek yogurt. My 30-second savory rendition would taste great alongside meat skewers or celery sticks, while a sweetened version would pair nicely with apple slices or even toast: When I was a kid, my parents would often pack me sesame-and-jelly sandwiches instead of the usual peanut butter.
Swap Out a Portion of Fat in Pastries
A recent revelation about toasted sesame paste’s neverending potential came in the form of baked goods. Because of its high fat content, toasted sesame paste can be swapped in for a portion of butter or oil in many desserts, infusing them with extra nuttiness. I think sesame pairs especially beautifully with fresh and cooked fruit in crumbles, pies, and tarts—I can’t get enough of these sesame blondies studded with dried red jujubes, which add a subtle sweetness.