Haw Berries & Kumquats

Hitting the sesame paste

“Hitting the sesame paste” (da majiang 打麻酱) is what we Beijingers say when we go and buy sesame paste. We also hit our soy sauce, vinegar, oil, and even sometimes the hard liquor.

No, we’re not abusive toward our condiments; just resourceful and unwilling to waste a single container. The mark of an old Beijinger is perhaps the number of glass jars, plastic take-out boxes, and frozen dumpling trays squirreled away in their cabinets: I know my grandparents have quite a few, and so too, I imagine, did Song Dong’s mother.

More than simple buying (mai ), da 打 refers to the act of purchasing things for which you bring your own container. You can da anything that can be refilled, over and over again, in a re-usable container, be it a jug, bottle, jar, or even just a ceramic bowl.

Just thirty years ago, no neighborhood grocery shop was ever without ladles, funnels, or an abacus. Behind the glass cabinets of each fushi dian (副食店) were haw fruit rolls, White Rabbit candies, dried noodles, etc., and in the corner were massive clay vats filled with soy sauce, vinegar, cooking oil, baijiu, and sesame paste. Deftly wielding a bamboo or metal ladle (tizi 提子), the gruff salesperson would pour your chosen liquid, spilling not a drop on the way. A half kilogram of soy sauce cost just ten or fifteen cents.

In those thriftier, less wasteful days, no one would dream of acquiring – or paying for – a new bottle every time they needed a splash of vinegar. Even soda pop and milk came in glass bottles that were sent back to the factory to be refilled. But with the arrival of a capitalist economy, we’ve also adopted capitalist consumption habits, and many people, especially the younger generations, gives no thought to buying vast quantities of small, over-packaged products (single-serving yogurts, single-serving bags of milk, single-serving snacks). Most fushidian, once the inviolable domain of their formidable salespeople, have converted to mini supermarkets where customers roam free (in China, chaoshi 超市 refers to not so much a grand shopping emporium a la Wal-Mart but rather to the fact that customers can select products themselves from the aisles).

It would be nice if an improved economy didn’t translate into more consumption, more packaging, and more waste; if people still re-used jars and queued up for refills whenever they needed; if goods were still sold with the same attention to re-usability and conservation; if America’s throwaway culture hadn’t been so swiftly embraced. I love the ceramic jars of yogurt, but now I see that “Old Qinghai” yogurt being sold everywhere, in its plastic cup with a plastic spoon, and though it channels the Tibetan mystique, it contains aspartame and several other ingredients that didn’t come from the grasslands.

Now about the only thing that people still bother to da is zhimajiang (芝麻酱), a rich paste made from roasted sesame seeds, sort of like tahini. You can, of course, buy packaged jars of sesame paste that’s produced in a factory, laced with preservatives, and shipped to a supermarket, but why would you? Any place that offers zhimajiang in a vat is sure to ground it themselves. Freshly ground sesame butter is not only environmentally friendly, but also tastes absolutely divine. It’s much richer and nuttier than the flat commercial version, which is thinned out by oil and probably other stuff as well – the difference is quite noitcable. (I suppose if soy sauce in a vat and vinegar in a vat tasted better, people would keep buying them too).

bagel with sesame paste

Liquid gold for breakfast: apple-cinnamon bagel with sesame paste, ground black sesame, and brown sugar

Some shops offer a choice between butter ground from black sesame or white sesame seeds. Some shops, like the Tongrisheng on Yonghegong Dajie, offer a pure sesame paste and a sesame-peanut butter combination, which they called erba jiang (二八酱), or “two eight sauce,” meaning that it’s two parts peanut to eight parts sesame. I was dying for pure sesame paste, having been derived for at least a week, or else I would have tried the sesame-peanut butter – next time, I promised. Apparently it used to be offered as tribute to emperors, too.

But we Beijingers, we can’t be without our sesame paste for too long, or else, I don’t know, our sky collapses. What can you do with sesame paste? Everything. I make a divine salad dressing with it, with sugar, salt, and a bit of garlic; it goes wonderfully with steamed eggplant, or xinlimei (心里美 watermelon radishes), or anything, really. It’s Beijing’s classic hotpot dipping sauce, with a handful of scallions, a dab of preserved tofu, a splash of sesame oil, and a pinch of garlic and preserved chives. We pour it over a bowl of cold mixed noodles, like zhajiang mian, or even straight into a bowl of hot, soupy noodles. We steam it into huajuan’r rolls, or layer it into flaky tanghuoshao buns (糖火烧), baked with oodles of brown sugar. I eat it on top of our homemade sourdough English muffins, perhaps sprinkled with a little honey, or with hawberry jam. Just recently I’ve discovered it’s even better as a spread when mixed with a little ground roasted black sesame and brown sugar – the brown sugar here has a spicy, gingery flavor that pairs nicely with the rich sesame paste.

My jar, purchased but five days ago, is already halfway gone. It’ll soon be time to dig through my jar collection for a larger one – or two.

Tongrisheng sells sesame paste for RMB 12.5 per jin (half kilo). Just walk in and say you’re here to da majiang. Bring your own jar!
Tongrisheng Lianghang (Grain Store) [map]
56 Yonghegong Dajie, Dongcheng District (100m north of Beixinqiao, next to Cafe de la Poste)
Tel: (010) 6401 0473
东城区雍和宫大街56号 (北新桥北100米)
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  1. [...] In China, fresh sesame paste and seeds should be widely available; try this store. Outside of China, sesame paste and black sesame seeds can generally be found in Asian grocery [...]

  2. baobabs says:

    Thanks for sharing the great information! I always find myself alienated from the Northern cuisine… and stunning photos you have there. I’m going to try that bagel black sesame spread for a change to see how that goes down as taste and texture!