By Contributing Food Writer Chef Mark R. Vogel
Ali Baba is a fictional character from the Arabian tale "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves." One day while working in the forest he observed the "forty thieves" entering their secret cave where all of their purloined treasure was stashed.
To open the cave they must utter the secret words: "Open Sesame." Ali Baba returns at a later point in time and pilfers some of the riches.
This sets into motion a cascade of violence whereby Ali Baba's brother, and all but the leader of the thieves are slayed. In the perfidious denouement, the final thief is murdered and Ali Baba and his cohorts all live happily ever after.
What is Sesame?
Sesame is an annual, flowering plant prized for its seeds, from which the equally valued sesame oil is produced. Sesame was one of the first plants grown for its oil and culinary uses. It dates back to 3,000 BC in Assyria, an empire centered around modern day Iraq. It was also cultivated in India 4,000 years ago.
Sesame is indispensable in Middle-Eastern, Far-Eastern, and Indian cooking. From Asia it made its way to Africa where slaves are credited with introducing it to North America. It is even grown in Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
Needless to say, while Asia may be the epicenter, sesame is beloved the world over. Currently, India and China are two of the world's largest producers.
Sesame seeds are most often a light, ivory color, but there are also brown, black and red varieties. They have a nutty, slightly sweet flavor that intensifies when toasted.
To toast them, simply place them in a dry skillet over medium heat, occasionally tossing until they start to brown and give off their nutty aroma. Because of their high fat content they turn rancid in a short period of time.
They can be stored up to three months refrigerated or six months frozen. Of course previously frozen seeds will not taste as good as fresh.
How To Use Sesame Seeds
Sesame seeds are employed in a seemingly infinite number of ways: breads, cakes, cookies and many other baked goods; desserts, soups, salads, stir-fried dishes, sauces etc.
In the Middle East they are made into a paste called tahini which is incorporated into hummus (mashed chick peas) and baba ghanoush (purred eggplant).
In Japan they're used on sushi, in Mexico in Mole and adobo sauces, in China in dim sum, and in Korea in marinades. In Cuba they're combined with sugar and made into a peanut-brittle type bar.
Sesame seed balls (sesame combined with various other ingredients and formed into a ball), are popular in China, Pakistan, and India.
And, let us not forget the billions of hamburgers with sesame seed adorned buns sold by McDonalds worldwide. These are just some of the highlights of one of the world's most versatile comestibles.
Sesame oil comes in light and dark forms. It is primarily composed of polyunsaturated fat. Dark sesame oil is made from roasted sesame seeds which accentuates their naturally nutty flavor. Sesame oil has a high smoke point, rendering it ideal for sautéing and deep frying. However, the light version is usually used for cooking.
Light sesame oil is excellent for salad dressings, especially ones composed of Asian ingredients. The dark sesame oil is more often treated like extra virgin olive oil, i.e., used as a flavor enhancer, a marinade or sauce ingredient, or drizzled on a stir-fried dish as a finishing touch. Mix dark sesame oil with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and some chile oil for a yummy dipping sauce for your Chinese victuals.
Health Folk Lore
The ancient Assyrians employed sesame oil as a medication. Women believed it promoted youth and beauty. Roman soldiers felt it gave them strength and energy. The Indians utilize it as a massage oil. But it doesn't stop there.
Sesame is yet another food that has been hailed as a veritable panacea. At one point or another in history, sesame has been claimed to treat hair loss, headaches, blurred vision, liver ailments, depression, senility, bone disease, and bowel problems.
Moreover it has been heralded as an anti-cancer agent, an immune system booster, and a promoter of heart and circulatory system health. Whoever thought a Big Mac could be so healthy?
Obviously sesame is no miracle cure and most of its salubrious allegations are old wives' tales. What sesame is unequivocally good for, (aside from unsealing magical treasure troves), is eating. They add a wonderful dimension to a myriad of dishes.
Here's my recipe for stir-fried snow peas which utilizes both sesame seeds and sesame oil.
Asian Style Snow Peas
- 1 lb snow peas trimmed
- 2 teaspoons sesame seeds toasted
- 1 red bell pepper julienne
- 1 yellow pepper julienne
- 2 scallions thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons light sesame oil
- pepper to taste
- Boil the snow peas in salted water for 15 seconds and then immediately submerge them in ice water.
- Toast the sesame seeds in a skillet over medium heat just for a minute or so until they brown and give off a nutty essence.
- Mix the peas, peppers, scallions, sesame seeds and soy sauce in a large bowl. Sauté in a skillet, or stir-fry in a wok, the vegetable mixture in the sesame oil for 2-3 minutes or until the peppers are soft.
- Season with pepper and additional soy sauce if need be. Or finish with a drizzle of dark sesame oil.