We find them on hamburger buns and bread sticks, and most people 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. As Speedy remarked after wolfing down his bowl of Chinese chicken salad, sesame seeds make everything taste better. It’s something that Americans might say about bacon and what Europeans might say about cheese. But this is Asia and we love sesame seeds.
Varieties of sesame seeds
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. They come in black, red, brown, gold, gray and cream. The darker ones are said to be more flavorful, but most people are only familiar with the cream-colored variety.
Personally, I have only used black, brown and cream-colored sesame seeds. I have not encountered other colors in my years of food shopping. Among the three, brown sesame seeds have the nuttiest flavor and aroma. I use black mainly to create color contrasts in cooked food. Cream-colored sesame seed, although the most common and most widely available, is the least aromatic and is the least flavorful.
How to buy and store sesame seeds
First, let’s deal with the most obvious question: where can one buy sesame seeds? In Asia, cream-colored sesame seeds are sold in almost every market, supermarket and grocery. For our household consumption, we buy black sesame seeds from The Little Big Store on Gilmore Avenue in New Manila and from The Little Big Store on the Hill along J. Abad Santos Street in San Juan. I don’t know if they are owned by the same person or persons but both stores have a constant supply of black sesame seeds. Brown sesame seeds, I am fortunate to find in abundance at the local public market here in Antipolo.
Outside of Asia, you’ll have to check Asian stores or the Asian aisle of your local grocery.
When buying sesame seeds, choose small packets, store in an airtight container, and keep away from sunlight and heat. Refrigeration extends their shelf life. Refrigerated, they last for six months and twice as long if kept in the freezer.
How to toast sesame seeds
In cooking, sesame seeds are found in dishes from the Middle East to all the way to the Far East.
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.
When toasting brown or black sesame seeds, it is difficult to see the change in color. How can we tell if they have been sufficiently toasted? I use two tests.
One, the aroma. If the nutty aroma starts to float over the pan, they’re probably sufficiently toasted.
But, to be sure, apply a second test. Look at the seeds closely and see if they are glistening with oil. That is what you want, really. To bring out the oil and allow the seeds to toast in its own oil. That’s why you toast sesame seeds in an oil-free pan. You don’t need to add any oil at all because the sesame seeds are rich in oil.
Types of sesame seed oil
There are two types of sesame seed oil. The light colored variety, made from unroasted sesame seeds, is used for frying (note that it has a high smoking point). The dark colored kind, made from roasted sesame seeds, is used—sparingly because of the strong flavor—in sauces and as garnish, often added to the dish just before serving. In other words, dark sesame seed oil is a finishing oil rather than a cooking oil. However, dark sesame seed oil may also be used for frying if diluted with a bland oil.
Sesame seed paste
If you’ve tried making the dip called hummus, then you’d be familiar with tahini, the sesame seed paste that is an essential ingredient of the dip. Made with unroasted (raw, in other words) sesame seeds, tahini is, by far, the most common name for sesame seed paste.
There is, however, a sesame seed paste made with roasted sesame seeds. It is commonly referred to as Chinese sesame paste. Just like tahini, you can make a homemade version of Chinese sesame paste using a food processor.
Sesame seeds and health
The study took fifty patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, and divided them into two 25-patient groups: a sesame group, receiving 40 grams/day of powdered sesame seeds, and a standard drug therapy group, receiving two 500 mg doses of Tylenol twice a day along with 500 mg of glucosamine once daily…
…sesame was the clear winner. Not only was this food therapy superior in reducing the intensity of pain, but it was at least equal in effectiveness to Tylenol and glucosamine…
To be an effective pain reliever, a “clinical dosage” consists of four tablespoonfuls of raw and non-gamma irradiated sesame seeds (or its equivalent).