Open Sesame: The Seeds of Asian Cuisine
This entry was posted on April 25, 2013.
For over 5000 years sesame seeds have been cultivated for its culinary value. It imparts a nuttiness onto dishes that is rich and complex. In western cooking, sesame seeds are often relegated to use in confectioneries, usually as topping for buns or bagels; you may recall this jingle: "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun!" Sesame seeds are also added onto crackers and other snacks as a crunchy element. But there is much untapped potential in sesame seeds, way beyond a mere garnish or topping.
To make the full use of sesame seeds, we have to look towards the East and study how it is deployed in Chinese and Japanese cooking. Sesame seeds is suitable in both savory and sweet applications. Discover what this ingredient can do for your cooking and add a whole new robust flavor into your repertoire.
As mentioned above, sesame seeds were first cultivated over 5000 years ago. It is one of the first crops to be pressed for its oil. Sesame has its origin in the subcontinent of India. From there, the seed spread to East Asian and the Middle East. For a small seed, sesame contains high amounts of calcium and magnesium, making it an mineral-rich option for healthy-conscious eaters.
Additionally, sesame oil contain two natural preservatives, sesamol and sesamin, that are known to fight free radicals, reducing the risk of cancer and other maladies. As you can tell by their names, sesamol and sesamin are compounds found only in sesame seeds. Behind its unassuming exterior, sesame seeds have quietly gained a well-deserved reputation as a superfood.
For those unfamiliar with the ingredient, sesame is usually identified with "Asian" flavor. An Asian salad dressing is likely a sesame dressing. Sesame seeds is also widely used in Japanese cooking. It is one of the components of furikake, a rice seasoning topper. If you ever find rice a bit too bland, sprinkle some furikake over the top of it and be amazed at appetizing it suddenly becomes. The combination of sesame seeds, seaweed, and bonito flakes add a dose of tasty umami, making you wolf down whatever is in front of you. Sesame seeds are also found on the the popular California roll. When used in such a way, the impact of sesame seeds are subtle but pleasant. It does not overwhelm the dish, but takes a backseat instead and complement the other flavors while adding complexity and a toasty robustness to each bite. Being as such, there is no reason sesame cannot be used in more applications other than Asian cooking. Toss some in your pasta. Sprinkle it on your pizza. Put it in your oatmeal. It will taste good, not out of place, while bringing you its superfood benefits.
Black and White
Sesame seeds come in two varieties: black and white. There are little differences between the two in taste. Mostly an aesthetic difference, though some claim that black sesame seeds have a richer flavor. One observable difference between the two seeds is how they're used in cooking. White sesame seeds are used on savory dishes and as garnish, whereas black sesame seeds are sweetened and used in dessert. This is most likely due the fact that black sesame paste looks more dramatic, especially when oozing out of a mochi rice dumpling.
In addition to the seeds themselves, sesame oil also comes in two major varieties. Light sesame oil is pressed from untoasted seeds, while dark sesame oil is pressed from roasted seeds. Predictably, dark sesame oil has a stronger flavor, but it can overpower a dish with its intense nutty aroma. You may stir-fry in light sesame oil; dark sesame oil is more suited for making sauces.
Sweet Sweet Sesame
Black sesame plays a big part in Chinese desserts. One particular dessert that gives you a full frontal sesame taste is Black Sesame Soup. Yes, soups aren't known to be sweet, but the Cantonese tradition of tong sui (literally "sweet water") is one such sweet soup, and it simply works. Much like a hot chocolate on a winter evening, a hot bowl of black sesame tong sui warms the tummyh and soothes the soul. It is a comfort food of the highest order, and the sweet gritty texture of sesame paste plays no small role in that joy.
It is worth mentioning that sesame paste differs from tahini, a sesame condiment widely used in Middle Eastern and Greek cuisines. Tahini is made from hulled sesame seeds, whereas sesame paste as found in Asian cuisine uses whole seeds that are roasted prior to being ground. While tahini sits outside the scope of Asian Food Grocer, I can say it is plenty tasty on a gyro or as part of a creamy hummus. Goes to show that the appeal of sesame is universal, or global at least.
Now You're Cooking with The Power of Sesame
So you've got your sesame seeds, sesame oil, and sesame paste: the full complement of sesame goods. Now to start cooking with this new entrant to your cupboard. Start off easy simply by incorporating sesame seeds as a garnish. Think anytime you would add crushed peanuts or bread crumbs to a dish, and substitute it with sesame seeds. Just like that you've added a toasty and crunchy element.
If you have untoasted sesame seeds, you can quickly toast them for a stronger flavor by putting them in a skillet over medium heat for 3-5 minutes. No need to grease the skillet. Once toasted, it gains a new level of flavor that bursts out when you bite into a seed.
Next, begin to incorporate sesame as the main flavor component of your dish. This is most easily accomplished through the use of sesame paste and sesame oil. Sesame paste is useful when making thick sauces. By combining chili and soy sauce into sesame paste, you have a savory sauce that will work wonders as a marinade or grill sauce. Similarly, sesame oil is great as the base for a vinaigrette or salad dressing. Simply replace the olive oil in most recipes and you'll end up with a stronger flavored dressing. For more ideas on how to use sesame in your cooking, take a look at all these recipes in our recipe section.
We hope that by reading this article, you have learned about some of the benefits and applications of using sesame seeds or sesame oil in your cooking. It is a highly versatile ingredient that deserves to get out of its relative obscurity. There was a reason why "Open Sesame" was the password to a treasure trove in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieve. Indeed, sesame holds the key to a world of flavor.