Desperation Dinners – Spicy Peanut Butter Noodles

Spicy Peanut Noodles with PorkOver the years, I’ve collected a handful of recipes that I refer to as Desperation Dinners – dishes meant for those days when I get home after a yucky day at the office and just want to get the cooking over with so I can crash on the couch for a three-hour dose of mind-numbing reality TV, or when I can’t muster up the energy to go to the grocery store for ingredients. They’re quick, they’re simple, and they require nothing that isn’t already in my pantry or freezer.

Some of these recipes aren’t even recipes at all. Like pasta with a little olive oil and garlic and Parmesan, which I might sprinkle with a little bit of bacon, some toasted pine nuts or fresh parsley if I can scrounge some up. Or rough omelettes stuffed with whatever vegetables are kicking around in the crisper. Or soft polenta with a runny poached egg and a crumbling of crisp pancetta and a dash of hot sauce. Or pasta with jarred sauce, when things are looking really grim.

In fact, as Desperation Dinners go, these Peanut Butter Noodles are downright elaborate.  They depend on a reasonably decent selection of vegetables being available, and possibly on a protein of some sort (usually pork, though sometimes chicken or tofu or shrimp depending on what’s kicking around)… though on a particularly desperate night, they’re actually quite good with nothing more than noodles, sauce and a sprinkling of green onions.

Spicy Peanut Noodles with PorkThis recipe originally came from John Allemang’s beautifully written collection of food essays, The Importance of Lunch, which is sadly now out of print but is well worth seeking out secondhand.

His version, simply called Peanut Butter Noodles, is utterly perfect in its pared-down simplicity – cooked spaghetti tossed with a spicy garlicky peanut butter sauce, slivers of red pepper, bean sprouts and a hefty dose of green onions.  It’s ridiculously cheap, which was a big selling point in my early twenties and Desperation Dinners were sometimes my only option before the next paycheque rolled around.

Over time, the recipe has evolved based on my preferences and my budget.  The vegetables have increased in both variety and quantity, and Allemang’s spaghetti has been replaced by proper stir fry noodles, which I usually have on hand for just these kinds of emergencies.  I’ve also added extra protein… here, I’ve “splurged” on tender pork tenderloin, which is actually surprisingly cheap when you can find it on sale.  And the bean sprouts are long gone, because I’ve discovered that I rather dislike cooked sprouts (slimy… eww).

This is the recipe I tend to make nowadays. It’s still as uncomplicated as ever, and yet the blend of colourful vegetables and contrasting textures makes it so much more satisfying than the sum of its parts.  On a Desperation Dinner kind of night, all I need is a bowl of these noodles and a new episode of So You Think You Can Dance, and I’ll feel right as rain.


4.7 from 3 reviews
Spicy Peanut Butter Noodles
This quick Asian-inspired noodle dish comes together in a flash. For a vegan-friendly version, substitute tofu for pork and omit the fish sauce.
Recipe type: Main
Serves: 4-6
  • 1 lb Chinese stir fry or lo mein noodles
  • 2 tbsp canola oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tbsp grated fresh ginger
  • 1 red hot chili pepper, finely minced (or 2 tsp red pepper flakes)
  • 1 lb pork tenderloin, cut into thin strips
  • 1 cup finely sliced red pepper
  • 1 cup finely julienned carrots
  • 1 cup shredded snow peas
  • ¼ cup natural peanut butter (chunky, if possible)
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
  • ½ cup hot water
  • ½ cup chopped green onions
  • Chopped fresh cilantro
  • Chopped roasted peanuts
  1. Cook noodles in a large pot of boiling salted water for 1 minute. Drain and set aside.
  2. In a wok or large heavy-bottomed skillet, heat 1 tbsp oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic, ginger and hot pepper, and stir fry for 1-2 minutes or until fragrant.
  3. Add pork strips. Continue stir frying for 4 minutes, until the pork is browned on all sides. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a small bowl.
  4. Add the remaining tbsp oil to the pan, then add red pepper, carrots and snow peas. Stir fry for 2-3 minutes, until vegetables are tender-crisp. Transfer to the same bowl as the pork.
  5. Add cooked noodles to the pan, and saute for 1-2 minutes just to warm through. Stir in peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame oil, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar and water, and cook for another minute or two until the peanut butter melts into a smooth sauce (if the sauce looks too thick or sticky, add a tablespoon or two of water at a time until it loosens up to the desired consistency).
  6. Remove from heat. Stir in the reserved pork and vegetables along with chopped green onions, and toss until evenly coated with sauce. Serve hot with a sprinkling of cilantro, green onions and roasted peanuts.


  1. Deb says

    Thanks so much for this recipe. It’s fabulous, my husband is half-comatose after eating his weight in noodles for dinner, and even my picky-as-heck autistic 5 year old ate a TON of it. It’s his favorite – peanut butter and noodles – and that’s all he had to hear about it, lol. No need to mention all the veggies, right? I didn’t have any snow peas on hand, but I had a bag of frozen sugar snap peas and I just threw them in at the snow pea stage and they were fantastic.

    Thanks again. Desperation or no, this is a wonderful recipe that will go into my stand-by rotation.

    • Isabelle says

      Deb, that is honestly one of the sweetest blog comments I’ve ever gotten.
      If I can convince one picky kid to eat more vegetables, than my work here is done (leaving husbands half-comatose from eating too much is a routine occurrence around here… not nearly as challenging). :)

  2. Debbie says

    This is really really good. My family loved it and I can’t wait to make it again. I used Linguini noodles instead of Lo Mein noodles, I didn’t use the fish sauce, and I couldn’t find the rice wine vinegar. I used rice vinegar so that might be the same thing as rice wine vinegar. Loved it, Thanks.

    • Isabelle says

      I’m so glad your family enjoyed this, Debbie! And yes, you are correct – rice vinegar and rice wine vinegar are essentially the same thing.

  3. Allison says

    This was soooo yummy! It was a bit too spicy for me (I usually order mild or mild/medium at Thai restaurants), so next time I’ll leave out some of the red pepper flakes. I also didn’t have any sesame oil, but I tossed in some sesame seeds to try to make up for it. It was great with pork and I didn’t have any problems with a lack of flavor in the meat. I’ll try it next with marinated chicken.

  4. Grace@ Food-Fitness-FreshAir says

    I loveee peanut noodles. And anything with peanut butter. That’s the thing about PB. You don’t need fancy ingredients. Just a few fresh ones, and you can throw something great together. I’d make this with tofu, and might have to make some soon!

  5. kita says

    Nothing tops a great stir fry in simplicity and taste. We get on kicks around here where we make them over and over – forget about them only to rediscover a love for them (and I hate to admit it but I use them as a way to pack a ton of extra veggies into a meal without the BF noticing). We haven’t tried a peanut sauce but Ill know to try this one the next time I’m rummaging through the pantry!

  6. Jenn says

    wow, my bf would love this dish! an improved version of the chinese ja jang mien :)

  7. GT says

    These sound great. Our favorite Chinese restaurant serves a similar dish as an appetizer. They call them sesame noodles, but they have more peanut butter than sesame in the sauce. They also add ginger – very yummy.

  8. erica says

    This link showed up on facebook, and I was dying to try it! I made it tonight, and I must say…it’s AMAZING! And after reading some of the comments, it’s really not that time consuming. Sure, it’s chopping and grating here and there, but not overly too much work. I believe I had the whole meal cooked in <40 mins.
    One thing I would change, however, if you were to think about making this meal ahead of time, would be to marinade the meat first. I used chicken instead of pork, and while the noodles and veggies were perfectly flavored, I would have preferred the chicken to be the same. But, great recipe nonetheless!

    • Isabelle says

      So glad you liked the recipe, Erica!
      I agree, marinating the meat would be an improvement, though it would mean a little extra planning (ie. not my usual OMG-I-have-to-cook-dinner panic). A couple of hours in a basic soy sauce, garlic and ginger marinade would probably do the trick.

  9. Dixie Caviar says

    This recipe looks wonderful. I’m always searching for a good noodle-peanut recipe… perhaps this is it?!

  10. Maya@Foodiva's Kitchen says

    The flavors in this recipe remind me a little of satay sauce, also made of crushed peanuts and in a pinch, peanut butter. I don’t know about this being a strictly Desperation Dinner, but I desperately want a taste of it now…LOL. Btw, I watch SYTYCD too and often wish I can put my body through all that torture in order to conjure up those beautiful movements on stage! It will never happen, of course, but it’s just nice to dream ;->.

    • Isabelle says

      I hear you there, Maya! Sadly, my ability to dance is limited to some basic folk dances they made us learn in elementary school gym class. :)

  11. Linda says

    Did I miss something? This sounds wonderful, but this has more chopping, julienning shredding, cooking a pork loin and all the other I got tired just reading the recipe..If I had a bad day I would certainly look for and easier recipe then this one. I will fix this on a weekend

    • Isabelle says

      This recipe is definitely on the slightly more complicated side as far as mise-en-place, but it’s actually pretty easy to adapt based on what you’ve got in terms of time and ingredients… plus it really does cook up ridiculously fast once you’ve got the chopping done.
      The full recipe above is probably closer to 30-40 minutes, depending on how quick you are with a knife (or even less if you use pre-julienned carrots).
      That said, on a really crappy night, I just make the noodles with sauce and green onions, which is about 10 minutes from start to finish.

  12. Lemons and Anchovies says

    Isabelle, I can almost taste this. I made a chicken salad with a spicy peanut vinaigrette last week and I happily ate it for days. I was on cut-back mode on carbs but now seeing the noodles here is working up a huge craving. I love everything in here. :-)

  13. suzy says

    i know you addressed the substitution of some noodles already, but do you think this would work with rice/cellophane noodles? that’s what i’ve got on hand right now.

    • Isabelle says

      Interesting question, suzy.
      I’ve never made this dish with rice or cellophane noodles, but I’m sure they’d work… they’re more fragile than pasta or lo mein, though, so I’d probably make the sauce first and then add them to the pan to avoid turning the noodles to mush (so basically, add them in Step 6 instead of Step 5).
      Also, make sure to cook them per package directions in Step 1, since the 1 minute cook time is based on fresh lo mein.

  14. Pretend Chef says

    Desperation Dinners. Love. It. This is my kind of dinner for a better ending to a crap day. Yummy!

  15. Kalyn says

    It sounds like a great dinner to me, although I’d probably substitute whole wheat spaghetti for the noodles.

    • Isabelle says

      Thanks for the comment, Kalyn. Whole wheat spaghetti or even soba noodles would be a good choice if you want a healthier, whole-grain option… me, I’m just a sucker for the slippery soft texture of those lo mein noodles. :)

  16. bellini says

    We are all desperate most evenings after a harried day at work, but these noodles are certianly not lacking in flavour!

  17. Jeff says

    YES!!!! This is exactly the meal I have been looking for! Simple and easy, and perfect after a long day at work. I’m sure it would be the kind of meal that could surprise guests if you served it for dinner as well! I may even explore with some almond butter as well! Thanks for the great recipe!

    • Isabelle says

      Good call, Jeff. Almond butter sounds like it would be pretty awesome! I’ve been toying with the idea of trying it out with cashew butter and chopped roasted cashews, too… I loves me some cashews.

  18. Kimmy @ Lighter and Local says

    This doesn’t sound desperation at all! In fact, it sounds downright awesome right now. I’m putting it on my list to make very soon!

  19. Tiffany says

    Sounds and looks great! We all have those days when the thought of cooking makes us wince, this is perfect for those days, or any other day! Thank you for sharing!

  20. Tina@flourtrader says

    A delicious quick fix meal-we all could use that recipe. I love asian cuisine with peanuts. Thanks for posting!

  21. Lindsey@Lindselicious says

    I love your version of peanut butter noodles! I have never tried it with fish sauce and some of the other ingredients that you mention. I just picked some up though, so I will have to add this on my list to try.

  22. Kate says

    I love Desperation Recipes- I too have a rolling three recipes that come out when I have nothing in the cupboard, can’t think what to cook or too tired. Or all three! And there’s always a slice of toast of course…


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