I first lived in Shandong in the 1990s, arriving just as summed turned to fall.
I spent much of that first autumn exploring the market near the entrance of my university. This is where I learned all of my food names, where I made friends with butcher Wang and his wife, and where some enterprising soul set up a charcoal burning stove inside army tent and called it a restaurant. That bustling street market is now a busy thoroughfare, running through a sterile park.
It was also where I first encountered roasted sesame being pressed into oil. There is simply no way to describe the heavenly smell of freshly roasted sesame oil . The Chinese name is literally “fragrant oil” (香油). The right amount can send a dish to heaven, but a few drops too many can send it straight to hell.
A few days ago, Sean Chen’s “Way of the Eating” blog mentioned a recipe for shrimp bing fried in 香油, which struck me as odd because I thought sesame oil was for flavor not for high heat. He mentioned that good Japanese tempura is also fried in sesame oil, but cold pressed sesame oil–not the roasted oil that we use for flavor.
Intrigued, I went out and got a bottle of cold pressed sesame oil, and decided to give it a test run on Shanghai onion oil noodles 葱油面, which as the name might suggest, depend on the oil for the flavor.
The noodles are straightforward: fry raw peanuts until crispy and fragrant, then do the same with onion greens. Add cooked noodles to the flavored oil, mix in a bit of sugar and soy sauce, and top with the onions and peanuts.
I have made this a million times with regular frying oil (corn or canola), and this time simply swapped out for sesame. The difference was striking. The peanuts and onions both fried up very nicely in the sesame oil, giving off a subtle fragrance. The finished dish was surprisingly light and flavorful. This would work very well as a frying oil, especially for a dish like tempura that relies on a clean taste.