A versatile ingredient in both sweet and savoury cooking, the sesame seed is a major crop farmed for the most part in East Africa, India, and China. The plant is the oldest oilseed crop known to man, highly prized in Babylon and Assyria as much as 4000 years ago.
The seeds grow in spongey-looking oblong green capsules, which split open when the plant becomes ripe. It is thought that this characteristic might account for the phrase ‘open sesame!’ (This assertion is disputed, however). The seeds can be an assortment of different colours, depending on the variety of the plant. The most common – the kind you find on your burger buns and the Chinese prawn toast from the takeaway – are off-white in colour. There also exist black, gold, red, and brown varieties. Sesame oil can be derived from any of the seeds – a darker oil means that the seed was toasted beforehand.
In cooking, the seed can be used as it comes, and is employed in various ways throughout the Middle East, China, and Japan to adorn stir-fries, meat, fish, and baked goods. The “most popular snack” in Turkey is simit, sesame-encrusted bread rings available from street vendors across the country. In Chinese cooking, roasted black sesame seeds are needed for Tang Yuan, sweet rice balls that are traditionally eaten during the Lantern Festival on the fifteen-day of Chinese New Year.
The humble seed can also be whizzed up with oil into tahini – a stable ingredient in eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. Tahini is an essential component of both hummus and baba ganouj, when combined with chickpeas and aubergine, respectively. It can also be used in sweet recipes, such as this onefrom the NY Times for salted tahini chocolate chip cookies. The cookies are a delicious mix of salt and sweet, and the tahini provides a lovely nutty undertone. Just make sure you remember to sprinkle on the salt straight after they come out of the oven!
And finally, this article would be incomplete without mention of our own recent sesame revolution – the Sainsbury’s Sesame and Beetroot dip, which is absolutely banging by all accounts.