Chinese Sesame Twists (Zha Ma Ye – 炸麻叶)

Oleh : Itudomino

Chinese sesame twists are delicious Chinese New Year snacks that you can serve alongside peanuts, roasted sunflower or watermelon seeds, and colorful candies as you celebrate with family and friends. 

Memories of Zha Ma Ye

I remember eating these twists, or zhà má yè (炸麻叶), in Hubei when I was very little. Besides getting new clothes and red envelopes, zhà má yè was one of the things I most looked forward to. 

With oil scarce in those days, there was nothing more indulgent than fried food. At last, we could enjoy something crispy and crunchy—sometimes over the course of several days during the two-week-long Spring Festival. 

It was—and still is—a magical time of year. Little touches like a spread of Chinese New Year snacks make all the difference. The bright, crackling sound of these strips of dough hitting the hot oil signals celebration and togetherness. In fact, these fried twists (along with similar snacks like mahua) symbolize reunion.

The crunchy sound from eating sesame twists also echoes the sound of firecrackers, ushering out the old and the bad spirits and welcoming the new. 

Many families in Hubei, Shaanxi, Henan, Chongqing, Anhui, and certain parts of Northern China must have this traditional Chinese New Year snack ready when guests arrive and to give out as gifts. 

Chinese Fried Sesame Twists

What Are Some Chinese New Year Snacks?

Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is a festive time where family and friends are constantly visiting each other and exchanging gifts and well wishes for the new year. 

(Check out Bill’s posts on common Chinese New Year greetings, with audio recordings of pronunciation in both Cantonese and Mandarin, so you can prepare for these visits!)

With all the visiting family and friends, Chinese families put out many snacks, fruits, and candies, not just to keep everyone fed, but also for symbolism! 

These crunchy sesame snacks are usually just one item in a spread of many different snacks that put a smile on everyone’s faces. 

Other Chinese New Year snacks include: 

  • Peanuts (and other nuts or peanut puffs/nut cookies/peanut brittle): longevity
  • Roasted sunflower seeds, watermelon seeds, pumpkin seeds: fertility, bearing sons 
  • Dried longans (dragon eye fruit): togetherness
  • Dried dates: prosperity
  • Candy (an assortment!) or other dried fruit: happiness, a sweet life 
  • Nian Gao (sweet rice cake): good fortune, reaching new heights in the year ahead
  • Sesame balls: happiness, luck
  • Fried dough twists: reunion
Chinese New Year Snacks on table

How to Flavor Your Sesame Twists 

This is a basic, “original” flavor recipe—just like how I remember them. But you can lean more on the sweet side or the salty side, depending on your taste. 

Other ways to adjust these to your tastes: add a large pinch of ground white pepper, five spice powder, or Sichuan peppercorn powder to spice things up.

Tips for Successfully Making Zha Ma Ye

  • Be sure to roll them very thinly before cutting! They expand after frying. 
  • These can be made in intricate twists or fans, or you can simply fry them as flat pieces once they’re cut. The flat shape was the original intention. After all, the direct translation of the name includes the word, yè (叶), which means “leaf.”
  • This recipe makes what you see in the photo, give or take a few that got eaten while we were photographing them! So you may want to double or triple the recipe for a bigger crowd. 
  • These turn even crunchier once they’ve cooled. Store them in an airtight container to keep them fresh. It’s best to finish them within 3-4 days. 

I do hope this recipe will turn zha ma ye from a regional favorite into one that’s enjoyed far and wide. With Chinese New Year coming on fast, this is a great snack to make ahead or bring to a New Year’s gathering. It’s easy to make, delicious, and highly addictive!  

Recipe InstructionS

If you can’t find toasted sesame seeds for this recipe, you can toast them at home. Add them to a small, dry pan, and toast for 3 minutes over medium-low heat. Be careful not to burn them. Cool completely.

Toasting black sesame seeds in dry pan

In a large mixing bowl (or bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook), combine the flour, oil, sesame seeds, sugar, salt, and egg.

Zha Ma Ye dough ingredients in mixing bowl

Use a rubber spatula to mix everything together (or turn the mixer on to its lowest setting), then gradually add the water 1 tablespoon at a time until the mixture resembles large flakes/chunks. 

Knead the dough with your hands for about 3 minutes to form a rough dough ball. The dough should be on the drier side—not sticky or too soft. If the dough still has a hint of stickiness, knead in a little more flour. Cover the dough with an overturned bowl and let rest for 30 minutes on the counter.

Ball of sesame seed dough

After resting, knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for 2 minutes, or until smooth. Cover and let the dough rest for another 20 minutes, so it’s easy to roll it out.

Beginning to roll out sesame dough with rolling pin

Use a rolling pin to roll the rested dough on a lightly floured surface into a large thin rectangle sheet that measures about 12×20 inches (30x50cm).

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