Note: For the four weeks between January 14th and February 11th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!
Back in the summer of 1999, I was living in Cambridge with very little money to spend, and way too many ways to spend it. The projects I spent my meager undergraduate research assistant paychecks on had varying degrees of success.
Constructing a miniature golf course in a four-story building: unsuccessful. Impressing potential girlfriends with fancy meals: unsuccessful. Building a mini bar that consisted of more than cheap vodka, peach schnapps and Midori: mildly successful (I also added cheap whiskey to the mix). Discovering how to cook really great breakfast sandwiches late at night: successful.
I compensated for this overspending and underachieving by subsisting almost solely on the aforementioned late-night breakfast sandwiches along with the cheapest menu item at the Chinese food truck: peanut noodle salad.
A little spicy, a little sweet, a little salty, chewy Chinese noodles with cucumbers, peppers, and scallions coated in a chunky peanut sauce was a tasty, filling meal that I only occasionally got tired of. Had I known how easy it is to make at home, requiring not much more than a few pantry staples and some fresh vegetables, I would have even been able to add some cheap gin to fully flesh out my bar.
My tastes and my budgets have changed a bit since my college days, but I still have a soft spot for cold peanut noodles. These days, I make them with far fewer noodles and many more vegetables. Indeed, it's now more of a vegetable salad with a few noodles added in for textural contrast. The sauce is pretty much the same (though I prefer it with more of a kick than usual). A handful of fresh herbs round out the flavors. This time I chose basil, but cilantro or mint would be equally delicious
I'm not sure where exactly the dish originates from. I'd suspect that it's a deeply modified American take on the sesame-based version of Sichuan dan dan noodles, with peanuts taking the place of the sesame paste and fresh vegetables subbing in for the preserved mustard root.
The version I make with its herbs and bean sprouts has some relation to various Southeast Asian salads as well. In the end, all that really matters is that it's delicious. That it takes under half an hour to throw together doesn't hurt either.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.