Don’t Call Them Donuts
The secrets of the sesame ball
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Wow, good times. The year is 781 AD and you’re a big shot from a Chinese prefecture visiting the royal palace in Chang’an. You’ve just finished a rousing match of tug-of-war and have gorged yourself on spiced jellyfish, marinated bear, jujubes and river piglet (the Chinese term for puffer fish). What’s next on the evening’s agenda of ancient imperial indulgences? If you’re lucky, a platter of sesame balls!
Travelchinaguide.com calls the Tang Dynasty “the most glistening historic period in Chinese history.” A little cursory research will tell you that this was an era of great progress and cultural flowering that brought us the woodcut, toilet paper and tea snobs.
It also brought us the sesame ball, perhaps the most glistening, historic dessert in all of glittering fried dessert history.
Yes, sesame balls have been kickin’ it for 1,000 years. This is why you should never, ever call sesame balls “Chinese doughnuts” when clearly doughnuts are European sesame balls. (Besides, there’s really no comparison between a sloppy, screechingly sweet jelly doughnut and a neat little bean-paste sesame ball.)
For those of you a little hazy on what we’re even talking about here, a sesame ball is a sticky rice dough ball filled with sweetened bean paste, rolled all over in sesame seeds and deep fried. These pastries are flaunted and quickly consumed at Chinese New Year’s Eve parties—where they are considered lucky, their expansive dough presaging expansive fortune—and other parties year-round. But really, no occasion necessary, it’s also a popular street food in China, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
A good sesame ball should deliver a kung fu punch of crispy, roasty, chewy and sweet. A bad sesame ball is gluey or tastes of oil. Our fair city is rolling in them if you know where to look.
I went all over Albuquerque sampling these balls for you. You are welcome. (Sometimes it felt like all of that glutinous rice dough was congealing into a secondary wad in my stomach.) Here’s what I discovered:
The 55-cent ball at Fei’s Cafe: This buckeye-sized, delectable little ball with red azuki bean paste, is shipped frozen from a bakery in California and fried for you on the spot. This is where you go when you need a sesame ball fix but don’t want to go whole hog.
The Talin Market $1.95 trio: served not warm or crunchy, but in a sealed bag. What they lack in crispy-and-melty-ness they make up for in perfect chewiness and rich flavor. Also of the red bean variety. Some people who grew up on sesame balls report pinching the ball until it “poofs” and deflates to a disk as a really fun and irresistible thing to do. That only works with room-temperature balls like these.
The Ming Dynasty lotus bean balls: $2.90 for three large balls, this is where you go to sample the traditional lotus bean version. Chewy, with honey-colored filling the texture of thick mashed potatoes.
Banh Mi Coda: 60-cent banh cam ball, the pièce de résistance in the Albuquerque sesame ball universe: Mine was warm, perfectly fried to a toothsome golden crisp, racquetball sized, filled with yellow mung bean and coconut paste. The cheapest and best.
If you haven’t tried a sesame ball, it’s time to get with the program. A few good things have come from imperial concentration of power, and this is one of them.