Not all spreads are born equal and when sesame seeds are introduced to the Maillard reaction beautiful things happen.
Camellia Ling Aebischer

8 Aug 2019 - 11:01 AM  UPDATED 8 Aug 2019 - 11:03 AM

What if the beloved sesame paste, tahini, could take on the toasty depth of a roasted nut? Well, it can and does.

Meet zhi ma jiang, or roasted sesame paste, an ingredient widely used in Chinese cooking from a sauce addition to noodles, as a salad dressing, or in desserts. It has a deep roasted flavour similar to peanut butter, but with significant sesame punch. Thank you Maillard reaction.

What reaction?
Kitchen Science: what makes our favourite foods taste so good?
Freshly baked bread, coffee, tea, caramel and the rustic roast - how do these delights get their golden colour and why do they smell and taste so good? Science has the answer...

Zhi ma jiang differs to tahini as it’s made using hulled white sesame seeds that have been heavily roasted. Tahini can be made using hulled or un-hulled sesame seeds, but often the roasting process is minimal to none.

This isn’t necessarily true for all tahinis though, as a ‘red’ variety exists in Gaza made from heavily-roasted seeds giving a rustic colour to the paste, thus lending it the name.

Not to be confused with the darker colour of un-hulled tahini which earns this from its shell, not roasting,  Chinese sesame paste usually takes on a dark caramel-brown colour, deeper than peanut butter and with extra lip-smacking texture. 

In Shanghai, the paste is popularly used to drizzle on top of fresh wheat noodles with chilli oil, vinegar, soy and chopped spring onions.

In Chengdu, it’s mixed through thick wheat noodles with a similar base, which also includes Sichuan peppercorns and spiced pork mince to create dan dan mian.

Uses are endless, from region to region and zhi ma jiang is also baked into biscuits, buns and pastries or served as a dipping sauce for hot pot. It's slightly thinner than peanut butter but is still high in oil, so give it a good stir prior to use to make sure the oil and solids haven't' separated and for a longer shelf-life, it's best kept in the fridge once opened - although once you've cracked the seal the options really are endless, so experiment. 

While you're at home, perhaps it's time to put this paste on spread rotation as it tastes great on toast or used in place of any kind of nut butter/tahini.

Most Asian grocers and supermarkets will sell the zhi ma jiang in the sauces aisles, and while you’re there, why not pick up a bag of fresh wheat noodles too.

10 ways with tahini
A firm fixture in Middle Eastern, Turkish, North African and Greek pastries, this sesame paste is used in both sweet and savoury dishes.
Shredded chicken and cabbage salad with sesame dressing

This quick salad is all about the dressing - it gets creaminess from Japanese mayo, sweetness from mirin and acidity from orange juice for balance.

Sticky sesame dumplings

Traditionally served during the winter solstice, the round shape of these dumplings signifies the togetherness of a family in the Chinese culture. 

Sesame noodles (ma jiang mian)

A favourite street food in Taiwan, these cold sesame noodles use a thin wheat noodle which is covered in a creamy sesame, peanut and soy sauce. The dish is so popular in Taiwan, you can even find it at 7-Eleven stores.

Bang bang chicken noodle salad (liangban bangbang ji mian)

They're the symbol of long life in China, the secret to Sophia Loren's beauty and they've been eaten in space. Yes, we're talking about noodles and what better way to keep it cool then with a  chicken salad with all the textural bang.

Dan dan mian

Dan dan noodles were originally sold by street vendors who carried their ingredients and stoves in baskets hanging from a dan (bamboo shoulder pole). They would sell a portion of noodles and ladle over each ingredient in the sauce separately, which would then be mixed by the customer. This dish is quite spicy as it is, but if you like it hot, drizzle over extra chilli oil to serve.