Three easy Chinese dishes to make at home

It started with a text.

Jo: “Hi there! Are you free this weekend at all?”
Me: “Free-ish on Saturday and free Sunday.”
Jo: “Should we make sesame noodles with soy sauce chicken on Sunday?”
Me: “That would be great. OK to shoot it and share it on the blog?”
Jo: “Sure! I’ll show an easy way to make the chicken that doesn’t use the oven — so good summer food. We can add a tofu salad if you want, too.”

Come Sunday morning, I packed up my lighting and camera gear, a few backgrounds, some foam core boards, and a selection of plates and bowls and headed out for the 30-minute drive to Joanna’s home in Escondido.

We started our day together the way we do almost every visit: with a trip to a Mexican restaurant. Jo loves Mexican food as much as I do, and inevitably we wind up chowing down on guacamole, enchiladas and chiles rellenos. Bellies satiated, we headed to the market to pick up our groceries for the afternoon’s meal-making marathon.

how we met

Jo is an accomplished goldsmith, jewelry designer and instructor with several celebrity clients. She and I met 20 years ago this September at an appreciation dinner for presenters at the “Women in Photojournalism Conference” sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association. I was a workshop leader, while Joanna was a colleague’s dinner guest. We wound up sitting next to each other and immediately connected. After spending most of the evening chatting, she decided to attend my workshop the following day. Since then, we have been amazing friends with a shared passion for creating, designing and cooking. She’s even catered large multicourse dinner parties cooking her signature Chinese dishes.

“What is your earliest culinary memory?” I asked as we were shopping for ingredients for our afternoon of cooking.

“I first remember my grandmother making fried chicken. Our family loved fried chicken! Also, helping my mother in the kitchen.”

It turns out that cooking came naturally to Jo, who soon took over the bulk of the family cooking. “My mother is a good cook but never loved cooking, so I took over the kitchen, probably before I was even in my teens.”

A lesson in Chinese cooking

Our cooking session began with getting the chicken into Jo’s versatile marinade. Traditional soy sauce chicken has a long list of ingredients and uses two different types of soy sauce. Jo keeps things simple, using regular soy sauce that most people already have in their pantries. She adds garlic, a touch of sugar, sesame oil and ginger. I’ve been to her house for dinner when she’s used this marinade on tri-tip. delicious! And that’s the true beauty of this recipe: You can use it for chicken, beef or a strong fish, like salmon — the marinade will have a slightly different effect on each protein. So if you have friends over for a mixed grill, all three proteins can take an overnight bath in this marinade (separately, of course), and each would retain its unique, yet pumped-up, flavor.

The next dish we tackled was Jo’s take on a classic takeout dish — sesame noodles — which she serves cold. Jo thinks the problem with restaurant sesame noodles tends to be too much sesame oil. “A little goes a long way,” said Jo. “The flavor can quickly become overwhelming, throwing off the balance of all the components.”

A surprise ingredient was the addition of peanut oil. “It adds to the silky mouthfeel of the dish, especially since we’re limiting the amount of sesame oil,” Jo told me. She also swapped out traditional fresh Chinese noodles for more readily available spaghetti. “Fresh noodles are best, but not everyone feels confident shopping at Asian markets.” Since spaghetti is a more common pantry item, Jo considers it a good stand-in.

Once the meat hit the grill and the noodles were chilling, we started on the easy tofu salad.

“Is this something you grew up eating?” I asked her as she prepared the tofu. “No,” she answered. “I was hosting a New Year’s Eve dinner and needed to flesh out the vegetarian selections, so I came up with this salad.”

The dressing ties into the other dishes in the meal with soy sauce and sesame oil but adds sambal oelek (an Indonesian chile paste) for a bit of heat. Red bell peppers add a pop of color and natural sweetness, while the white and green parts of scallion add a peppery bite. Garnished with cilantro, the salad was bright and light. I took home leftovers, which became even tastier the next day, once the tofu had more time to soak up the dressing.

Jo and I sat down to enjoy our meal when the cooking was over, and I’d taken all the photographs. In between bites of finger-licking-good chicken, I commented on how alike we are and shared how my parents instilled in me that preparing meals for those we care for is an extension of our love for them. Jo agreed.

“I enjoy feeding people,” she told me. “The art of making a wonderfully, thoughtfully, lovingly prepared meal is so very special.”

Jo’s Grilled Soy Sauce Chicken

The meat will taste best if you allow it to marinate overnight — plan accordingly. If you don’t feel like grilling, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the chicken in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet or shallow pan and bake for 15 minutes. Lower heat to 375. Continue baking until the meat has pulled away from the bone and internal temperature registers 165 degrees in the thickest part of a leg or thigh, about 25 minutes.

Makes 6 servings

2½ to 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
2½ to 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken legs

¾ cup soy sauce
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon sesame oil
¼ teaspoon freshly grated ginger (see note)

Divide chicken into two 1-gallon-size resealable plastic bags. In a small bowl, whisk together the marinade ingredients. Evenly divide the marinade between the two bags of chicken, then squeeze out excess air while sealing the bags. Massage the marinade into the chicken and let it marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

An hour before you’re ready to grill, remove the chicken from the refrigerator so it can come up to room temperature. Prepare a grill as per the grill’s instructions. Once temperature reaches 500 degrees, place chicken on grates, close lid and grill for 10 minutes. Lift the lid, flip the chicken, and grill for an additional 8 to 10 minutes with the grill closed. Continue grilling and turning chicken, moving chicken pieces onto cooler areas of the grill as needed until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Remove to a platter to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Note: Jo keeps her washed and unpeeled ginger in the freezer. Grating ginger on a Microplane is much easier when frozen, with the added benefit of not losing any precious ginger juice. I’ve started doing this and truly am amazed at how much more intense the ginger is. It also lasts for months frozen.

Cold sesame noodles.

(Anita L. Arambula / Confessions of a Foodie)

Cold Sesame Noodles

Makes 6 servings

1 pound dry spaghetti
peanut oil
1½ cups chunky peanut butter
3½ tablespoons soy sauce
6 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons sambal oelek chile paste, or substitute with Sriracha or gochujang
½ teaspoon sesame oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
3 scallions, thinly sliced ​​(green and white parts), divided

Chopped peanuts
Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add pasta and cook 8 to 10 minutes or until just tender. Drain paste and rinse under cold running water. Keeping the pasta in the colander, drizzle a splash of peanut oil over the pasta and toss to coat (this will help keep the pasta strands from sticking to each other). Set aside to finish cooling.

Add 1 tablespoon of peanut oil to a large bowl. Whisk in the peanut butter, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, sambal, sesame oil and garlic until well combined. Add a tablespoon of water, if needed, to help smooth out the sauce. Add the noodles, tossing well to coat, adding more water a tablespoon at a time, if needed. Toss in ⅔ of the sliced ​​scallions, stirring to distribute.

Divide noodles among 6 plates. Garnish with remaining scallions, chopped peanuts, cilantro and Sriracha as desired.

Summer Tofu Salad.

Summer Tofu Salad.

(Anita L. Arambula / Confessions of a Foodie)

Summer Tofu Salad

This tofu salad makes a refreshing vegan lunch all on its own. Jo doesn’t specify what kind of tofu to use, but I prefer Trader Joe’s Organic Sprouted Tofu. This extra-firm tofu has the best texture, holding its shape well when sliced.

Makes 6 servings

2 teaspoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
½ teaspoon sambal oelek chile paste, or to taste
3 drops sesame oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1 medium to large red bell pepper, cored, deseeded, then diced into ¼-inch pieces
3 scallions, thinly sliced, divided
1 (15.5-ounce) package of Trader Joe’s Organic Sprouted Tofu, sliced, patted dry, then cubed into bite-size pieces
Cilantro leaves, chopped, for garnish

Whisk together soy sauce, vinegar, sambal, sesame oil, sugar, bell pepper and half the scallions. Place the cubed tofu in a bowl and top with the dressing. Cover and chill for at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight. When ready to serve, divide between 6 dishes and garnish with reserved scallions and cilantro.

Adapted from recipes by Joanna Joy Seetoo. Recipes, as written, are copyrighted by Anita L. Arambula and reprinted by permission from “Confessions of a Foodie.”

Arambula is the food section art director and designer. She blogs at, where the original version of this article was published. Follow her on Instagram: @afotogirl. She can be reached at [email protected]

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