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The simple sesame seed has a lore as rich as its oil. Sesame seeds come from a plant which has been growing for thousands of years in the Middle East and Asia where it was cultivated for its nutritious seeds and oils and purported medicinal qualities. This included suppressing the urge to vomit or “come forth violently.” Perhaps this potency was key to the magical commands “Sesame, open” and “Sesame, close” in the Arabian tale of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.

We are used to seeing white sesame seeds, but they can grow in many colours including black, brown, red and white. While they seem to find a place in cooking throughout the world; there does appear to be a cultural preference. Black seeds are preferred in South Asian and Chinese cooking. White sesame seeds dominate in Europe and North America.

Sesame’s flavour is pleasantly warm and slightly nutty. Once tasted, it remains familiar and pokes through dishes as different as Korean beef bulgogi and Rumanian bagels. It’s evident in treats such as middle eastern halvah—a wonderful candy that we used to call Jewish cement—and a flavourful spread called tahini.

Sesame seeds can be used in many dishes but toasting them slightly—a few minutes in a medium hot frying pan or oven—really brings out their flavour. Once toasted, they need to be used soon or refrigerated because the now heated oil in the seeds will go rancid. A great “free source” for toasted sesame seeds is in the paper bags in which we bring home bagels. There are always lots of seeds that have come loose. We store the seeds in a glass container in the fridge and use them in many dishes. I especially like them sprinkled over cold marinated asparagus.

Sesame oil has the same wonderful taste as the seeds and should be stored away from heat and light. While the oil can be used in cooking, it should not be used for frying. It will burn and smoke at a much lower temperature than most cooking oils. Use it instead as the last flavouring ingredient in a stir fry or other dishes. A teaspoon or two is outstanding in a steak or chicken marinade.

© Barry Lazar 2000 Email Flavourguy

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