Sesame: History and Uses
"Open sesame !" This well-known phrase was the code which opened the entrance to the robbers' cave of treasures in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in the Arabian Nights (a collection of tales dating from around 650 CE).
These tiny seeds of the plant Sesamum indicum have been attributed magical powers, as reflected in that famous command. Its fabled capacity to open doors to financial wealth has been used in recent centuries as an allegory for the intellectual wealth that lie within books.
Sesame and Lilies (1865) is the title that John Ruskin, English art critic and social reformer, gave his book containing his two lectures: Of Kings' Treasuries and Of Queens' Gardens . In the former, he exhorts the establishment of public libraries using government/royal funds, to enable the populace to discover the "treasure hidden in books". The lecture ends with "...this book plan..would prove a considerable tonic to what we call our British Constitution, which has fallen dropiscal of late ...and wants healthier feeding ...try if you cannot get corn laws established for it, dealing in a better bread; - bread made of that old enchanted Arabian grain, the Sesame, which opens doors; - doors not of robbers', but of Kings' Treasuries."
American novelist Rupert Hughes wrote in With a First Reader : "Dear little child, this little book/Is less a primer than a key/To sunder gates where wonder waits/Your "Open Sesame!""
History of Sesame
Probably originating in Africa, sesame has been cultivated for its seed and oil since ancient times in the Old World. The African word for sesame is benne . The word sesame is of Semitic origin, reaching the English language in the 15th century via Greek sesamon and Latin sesamum . The sesame seed contains between 45% to 55% oil and is notable for its resistance to rancidity.
It formed part of the diet of the Indus Valley civilisation (circa 4000 BCE). Records of sesame production in the Tigris and Euphrates date back to 1600 BCE. The Egyptians used the ground seed as grain flour. Cleopatra is said to have used it as part of her skin care regimen. Marco Polo waxed lyrical about the sesame oil that he sampled whilst traveling through Persia, saying it was the best oil he had tasted on all his travels.
Sesame arrived in China around the early Han period (206 BCE to 220 CE). The "barbarian grain food" enjoyed by Emperor Ling (168-188 CE) was believed to be grain food cooked with sesame. In Tang times one of the most popular snacks was steamed breads containing sesame which were sold mainly by Iranian street vendors. Soot for Chinese ink blocks was made by burning sesame oil.
Chinese Sesame Desserts
There are two types of sesame seed: white and black. The black form (s. orientale ) is popular in Chinese desserts. Black sesame paste is one of the most popular stuffings for tong yuen (glutinous rice marbles), a symbolic food for the Lantern Festival which concludes the 15-day Chinese New Year celebrations.
A "sweet soup" of black sesame is another great Chinese favourite. (Chinese cuisine features desserts that are best described in the Western context as 'sweet soups'. These may be made from peanuts, adzuki beans, green mung beans or root vegetable such as taro or sweet potatoes.) It is made by gently frying black sesame seeds in a saucepan until fragrant. The toasted seeds are then ground until very fine and boiled with water and some sugar, with a teaspoon or so of rice flour added to thicken.
White sesame seeds are also used in Chinese sweets, often as a nutty coating for texturally chewy yet crunchy deep-fried snacks such as deep fried glutinous rice flour balls; or mixed with crushed peanuts for filling or dressing for sweet snacks.
Sesame bars: an ancient snack
There are many ancient sesame confections in Middle Eastern and Greek cuisines which can still be found today in stores specialising in foods of these regions.
Pastelli (sesame seed wafer) dates back to ancient Greece. Originally a simple mixture of honey and roasted sesame seeds, it is still made in rural Greece, with the addition of dried figs, raisins or almonds as available. Sugar was added in later times as sugar cookery techniques developed, resulting in a firmer crisp wafer. Sum-sum is a Jewish confection along similar lines.
The sesame bar found in most health shops today is a descendant of these traditional confections.
Sesame Oil & Pastes: Middle Eastern vs Asian
Both sesame paste and sesame oil are used in Middle Eastern, Central and Far East Asian cuisines. However, the Middle Eastern products cannot be substituted for the Asian versions or vice versa: you could do it but the resultant dish will not be true to flavour of its cultural roots.
European and Middle Eastern sesame oils are cold-pressed, giving a light to golden coloured oil with a nutty flavour. It has a high smoke point, making it a good cooking oil albeit a very expensive one. Chinese and Japanese sesame oils are made by pressing roasted white sesame seeds. The resultant oil has a much more pronounced flavour with regional variations in colour (from light honey to dark brown) and degree of "toastiness".
Sesame paste is made from grinding toasted sesame seeds. The Middle Eastern paste, tahini (or tahina), differs from the Chinese versions in that the seeds are roasted to a greater degree in the latter. Tip: Sesame paste often settles and separates from the oil when the jars have been sitting around for a while. A simple way to recombine them into a homogenous paste is to pour the contents of the jar into a blender and whizz the paste and oil together for a few minutes. Pour back into the jar and store in a cool place.
Uses of Tahini (Sesame Paste)
Tahini is the taste backbone of mezze dishes such as hummus (chickpeas with tahina) and baba ghanoush (smoky eggplant and tahini). Tip: for silky smooth hummus, take the extra step of removing the skin of the chickpeas after soaking. After soaking dried chickpeas overnight, drain off the soaking water. Place the chickpeas in a saucepan with just enough water to cover. Add a good pinch of bicarbonate of soda and bring to the boil. Stir vigorously as the water come to the boil. The skins separate from the chickpeas into a frothy mass. Drain in a colander and rinse thoroughly under running water to get rid of all the loosened skins. Then proceed as usual with your hummus recipe.
It is also used in sauces to accompany felafel, fried vegetables such a cauliflower and eggplant, and fish. Fish and tahini is a classic marriage in Middle Eastern cuisine. Try Lebanese Samke Hara where fish is stuffed with a mixture of garlic, chilli, walnuts and fresh coriander leaves and stalks (all minced finely together) and then baked in foil. About 10 minutes before the end of cooking time, open the foil package and pour a tahini and lemon juice dressing over the fish. Seal and return to the oven to finish cooking.
In Turkish culture, sliced tahin helvasi (a sesame paste dessert) is said to be the most typical and desirable finish to a fish meal as the two make a healthy combination; the helva neutralising the "light headedness" resulting from eating fish.
Sweets using tahini
Tahini is also used in a wide range of of sweet treats such as sam tatlisi (literally Damascus dessert), comprising a baked pistachio-studded, rosewater-scented cake of semolina, tahni and sugar; nummora , which is a leavened baked semolina and tahina slice; and dibis di tahina , a mixture of carob molasses and tahina which is spread on Lebanese bread.
Halva, literally meaning “sweet”, has many different regional variations, each using different ingredients. The sesame halva, often with almonds or pistachio added, is one of the most well-known and loved. It is made from ground sesame seeds, glucose and an extract derived from the roots of an eastern Mediterranean tree, called halva root or wood. This extract gives halve its characteristic light crunchy texture.
Uses of Chinese Sesame Paste
In Chinese cuisine, sesame paste features most strongly in northern and western regional cuisines, particularly that of Sichuan, where a dark paste with a very pronounced roasted nutty flavour is used. If you can't find this dark version, the more widely available honey-coloured Chinese sesame paste is an acceptable substitute.
Dan dan mian , one of the most famous Sichuanese street snacks, comprises freshly cooked noodles tossed in sesame paste, light and dark soy sauces, and other seasonings, together with a spicy meat sauce that incorporates the crunchy Tianjin preserved vegetable so beloved of this region.
A triple whammy of sesame paste, oil and toasted sesame seeds are used in cold and hot dishes of poultry, meat, offal, noodles, vegetables and tofu (but never with fish).
"Kwai mei " (strange flavour) is the culinary term in Chinese for one of the typical Sichuan flavours. It refers to the seemingly bizarre but totally harmonious combination of salty, sweet, hot, numbing (the effect of Sichuan peppercorns!), sour, fresh-savoury and fragrant flavours.
Does that sound confusing? Your palate won't be confused at all by this chicken dish which is also known as "Bang Bang Chicken" (the name refers to the traditional wooden cudgels (called bang ) used to beat the chicken meat. This is done to loosen the fibres and make it easier to tear the meat into slivers by hand.) I did this dish for a friend's housewarming party in Scotland many years ago and on request, shared the recipe. It was the summer dish in far north Scotland that year!
Recipe: "Strange Flavour" Chicken (or Bang Bang Chicken)
500 g chicken pieces (I prefer to use thigh meat but you can use breast meat)
2 - 3 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp sugar
Generous pinch salt
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp black rice vinegar
2 tbsp sesame paste
1 tbsp sesame oil
1tbsp chilli oil
½ - 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, dry roasted & ground
2 - 3 spring onions (scallions), white section only
1 small cucumber
2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
Poach the chicken pieces. (Note: to keep the flesh silky smooth, do not let the water come to the boil. The water temperature should be maintained at just below simmering point.) When the chicken is cooked, remove from the water and brush the pieces with sesame oil. Leave until completely cold.
To make the dressing: In a small bowl, combine sugar, salt, soy sauce and vinegar. Stir until the salt and sugar are completely dissolved. Gradually work in the sesame paste until you get a smooth sauce. Add sesame oil, chilli oil and ground roasted Sichuan peppercorns and stir until well-blended.
To assemble: Shred the chicken meat. Slice the spring onions into thin slivers lengthwise. Peel and seed the cucumber and cut into thin batons.
Pile the spring onions and cucumber in the centre of a serving dish. Place the cold chicken slivers on top. Spoon the sauce over the chicken. Scatter toasted sesame seeds over and serve.
Optional: You can also add mung bean sheets to the spring onion-cucumber base. It gives the dish an additional textural dimension. Dried mung bean sheets are large translucent sheets. For the above recipe, 1 large sheet will suffice. Soak in boiling water for about half an hour or until softened. Rinse in cold water and squeeze out the excess. Cut it into strips about 5 cm long and 1.5 cm wide.