We find them on hamburger buns and bread sticks and most think they’re merely decorative. Sesame seeds are more than a food decoration. They add a subtle crunch, they impart a distinct flavor and, especially when toasted, an indescribably unique aroma. Reputedly the oldest spice known to man, its earliest record dates back to “an Assyrian myth which claims that the gods drank sesame wine the night before they created the earth.” First cultivated in India, there are several varieties of sesame seeds, the darker ones are said to be more flavorful, but most people are only familiar with the dream colored ones.
In cooking, sesame seeds are found in dishes from the Middle East to all the way to the Far East. One finds them in the very popular dim sum Jin deui Chinese sesame seed balls, the Indian Tilor laru and Til Pitha and in the Filipino palitaw.
As a health food, sesame seeds have remarkably many benefits (note that there are white and black sesame seeds). Ancient Babylonian women halva, a mixture of honey and sesame seeds, to prolong their youth and beauty, while Roman soldiers ate sesame seeds and honey to give them strength and energy (source).
Sesame seeds are a very good source of copper and a good source of magnesium and calcium. Just a quarter-cup of sesame seeds supplies 74.0% of the daily value for copper, 31.6% of the DV for magnesium, and 35.1% of the DV for calcium. [Full article at WHFoods]
When buying sesame seeds, choose small packets and store in an airtight container. If not refrigerated, use the seeds within three months. Refrigerated, they last for six months and twice as long if kept in the freezer.
To really bring out the flavor and aroma of sesame seeds, it is best to toast them.
Measure the amount of sesame seeds needed and place in an oil-free pan.
Over medium heat, toast the sesame seeds, shaking the pan often for even browning.
When the sesame seeds turn golden, turn off the heat and continue toasting them in the hot pan, shaking often, until the color deepens to a light brown.
There are two types of sesame seed oil. The light colored variety, made from untoasted sesame seeds, is used for frying (note that it has a high smoking point). The dark colored kind, made from toasted sesame seeds, is used — sparingly because of the strong flavor — in sauces and as garnish, often added to the dish just before serving. Dark colored sesame seed oil may also be used for frying if diluted with a bland oil.
Sesame seed oil is high in polyunsaturated fat and is used for medicinal purposes in parts of Asia.