As a college student at the University of Southern California, Kevin Pang always looked forward to academic breaks when he could visit his parents in Seattle. And every time his dad Jeffery picked him up at the airport, Kevin also knew that a tub of cold sesame noodles topped with poached chicken would be waiting for him as well.
“When you’re in your 20s and you’re poor and long for home, food becomes this avatar for nostalgia,” Pang says. “I’d taste those noodles, and immediately I’m like, ‘Ah, I’m home.’ There’s just something about them that’s so comforting and resonating and evokes warm feelings.”
Pang and his dad continue to meet at the confluence of food and nostalgia today, co-hosting the popular America’s Test Kitchen YouTube series Hunger Pangs and co-writing the newly released cookbook A Very Chinese Cookbook: 100 Recipes from China and Not China (But Still Really Chinese).
Now that he and his family live in Chicago, half a country away, Pang often makes cold sesame noodles for himself and his family to provide that same comfort. Whereas his dad used to use the fat end of chopsticks to mix the sauce that serves as the flavor base for the dish, Kevin avails himself of the technological wonder that is the modern blender to whir soy sauce, sesame paste, sugar, vinegar, chili oil, garlic, and ginger to a consistency that will coat cooked noodles with just a few tosses. But his overall process is similar to the one his dad has used for decades.
“In addition to the affection I have for cold sesame noodles, I love this particular recipe because it is just the simplest thing to put together,” Kevin says. “And you can make a jar of that sauce beforehand to have the dish at a moment’s notice.”
Pang also loves that sesame noodles are the type of dish that is ubiquitous on street corners and in night markets in China. While the base is simple and consistent, it’s also an infinitely customizable meal into which different elements can be added to taste. Different herbs and proteins. Spices. Jeffery Pang opts for an extra kick by adding more chili oil than most.
“We like to add poached chicken, but in Hong Kong, you put deli ham on top of it,” Kevin says. “Sliced egg omelets are also popular. It can hold up as an entire meal that’s ready in 15 minutes flat and leaves everyone happy because they can kind of make their own.”
Born in Hong Kong, Kevin Pang and his family moved to North America when he was six. As they moved around the US and Canada, traditional Chinese cooking remained a hallmark of their home. However, while Kevin found the food delicious, he wouldn’t develop an appreciation for the time-honored techniques and recipes his parents maintained until he was older.
There’s just something about these noodles that’s so comforting and resonating and evokes warm feelings.
Understanding that nostalgia takes time to develop, Kevin’s parents were optimistic he’d form an attachment to the food they cooked and didn’t push the point too hard. Instead, they began making simple video recordings of their recipes in hopes he would be interested in using them at some point.
As Kevin wrote in his New York Times article, “My Father, the Youtube Star,” his dad’s main reason for sharing the videos was because he was “afraid that if you wanted to eat your childhood dishes, and one day we’re both no longer around, you wouldn’t know how to cook it.”
Those lo-fi videos made for an audience of one eventually garnered a healthy following on YouTube. While the videos were short and straightforward, Kevin’s parents took a detailed approach to producing each installment, making multiple test runs before finally hitting record. It’s a level of intentionality that fits with the America’s Test Kitchen ethos, where Kevin now serves as digital editorial director.
One of the hallmarks of America’s Test Kitchen and its sibling publication Cooks Illustrated is meticulous testing to recommend best practices and techniques to home cooks. When it comes to the time-tested sesame noodles recipe, Pang has tricks to avoid the noodles from sticking together: Gently stir them while they cook and then, when they’re done cooking, run them under cold water to rinse off the starches.
“A cold rinse will also keep the noodles from overcooking,” Pang explains. “Then I immediately toss them with a tablespoon of vegetable oil. And if you want to go one step beyond that, you can spread them on a baking sheet or large plate to ensure they don’t clump and stick together.”
And why cold noodles? According to Pang, it’s not so much a matter of temperature but more so a preferable texture that’s achieved when noodles are cooled and coated in oil.
“Chinese culture has what I like to think of as a sophisticated approach to textures and food,” he says. “There’s a certain slipperiness that can be achieved when noodles are cold or at room temperature. And to us, the textural contrast of slippery foods makes them taste more opulent or luxurious.”
Taking a cue from his parents, Pang is slowplaying the urge to force his enthusiasm for traditional Chinese dishes onto his seven-year-old son Liam. A picky young eater, Liam has yet to develop the same emotional attachment and appreciation for traditional Chinese food that his grandparents passed on to his father.
“As a parent, I just need to keep presenting it as a magnificent privilege to try food from different cultures,” he says. “ I have to open the door, and he’s got to walk through it himself because if I push too hard, he’ll just start to resist.” Chances are, he’ll take that step when he’s ready.
Kevin Pang’s Sesame Noodles 麻醬拌麵
Serves: 4 to 6
Total Time: 30 minutes
- 5 tablespoons soy sauce
- ¼ cup Chinese sesame paste
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 4 teaspoons Chinese black vinegar
- 1 tablespoon chili oil
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
- 1 pound fresh thin white wheat noodles*
- ½ English cucumber, cut into 3‑inch-long matchsticks
- ¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves
- 2 scallions, green parts only, sliced thin
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
*If fresh thin white wheat noodles are unavailable, substitute fresh lo mein or 12 ounces of dried wheat noodles. In a desperate pinch, spaghetti will work.
1. Process soy sauce, sesame paste, sugar, vinegar, 1 tablespoon water, chili oil, garlic, and ginger in a blender until smooth, about 30 seconds, scraping down sides of blender jar as needed. Transfer to a large bowl for immediate use, or store refrigerated in a jar for up to two weeks.
2. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Add noodles and cook, stirring often, until just tender. Drain noodles and rinse under cold running water until chilled; drain well.
3. Transfer noodles to bowl with dressing and toss to combine. Adjust consistency with extra water as needed until sauce smoothly coats noodles. Transfer noodles to a shallow serving bowl and top with cucumber, cilantro, scallions, sesame seeds, and any other preferred toppings.