A few More Tasty Seeds

Sesame is an annual indigenous to northern Africa and, some authorities believe, also native to India. It has been grown in Asia for centuries (although it is still considered a “foreign” plant in China), as well as in Indonesia. It is generally considered to be the oldest crop grown for its oil; the oil content of the seeds is very high. Today, sesame is cultivated primarily in India, China, Indonesia, Africa, Mexico, Guatemala, and the United States. The seeds were brought to the United States by African slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and they are still called benne, an African word for “sesame,” throughout the American South.

The seedpods, or capsules, that contain sesame seeds tend to shatter easily once ripe, so the seeds must be harvested before they are fully mature. Traditionally, harvesting was done by hand, the stalks cut and then dried and the seeds removed, and it is still done this way in many countries. But more recently, varieties that do not burst when ripe have been developed, allowing for mechanical harvesting. The seeds are small, flat, and oval. White sesame seeds, which are actually a pale cream color, are the most common form. Brown sesame seeds, also called “natural,” are unhulled white seeds. The white seeds are sometimes sold toasted, and in that case look like the brown seeds. The white seeds have a faint nutty aroma, while unhulled brown seeds have almost no fragrance; both, however, have a pleasing nutty, slightly sweet flavor. Black sesame seeds, grown in Asia, have little aroma but a richer flavor.

Sesame seeds are used in baked goods in many cuisines and are often sprinkled over flatbreads and other breads, bagels (of course), and breadsticks before baking. They pair well with certain vegetables, particularly asparagus, bok choy, and broccoli, as well as eggplant. In India, the seeds are made into a nutty chutney served with various dishes. Toasting brings out the flavor of the seeds, and they are easily toasted in a dry skillet, just until aromatic; overtoasting can make the seeds, especially the black ones, bitter. In Japan, a mixture of toasted sesame seeds and sea salt, called gomasio, is a popular seasoning. Sesame seeds may also be sprinkled over salads or stirred into rice or noodle dishes, and the black seeds make a striking garnish. The ground sesame paste known as tahini, made from hulled white seeds, is ubiquitous in the Middle East, and a similar paste made from toasted seeds is used in Japanese and other Asian cuisines. The seeds are also used in sweet dishes and in confections, notably halvah, the Sesame oil is used in many cuisines, and it keeps well even in hot climates. The oil extracted from white seeds is used as a cooking oil in Western kitchens, while Asian oils, made from toasted seeds, are darker and have a stronger, more nutty flavor; they are more often used in dressings or as a finishing oil or garnish.