Sesame and flaxseed are not only healthy and tasty but also versatile

Seed is, in a way, our first link to the food chain and in many cultures it is the symbol of renewal and abundance; you may have heard of the saying that within a single seed there lies a forest. Seed is also the raison d’être of Navdanya, a movement and an organization dedicated to the saving of local seeds. Given its power to reproduce life endlessly, it is no wonder that seeds make for a highly nutritious and toning food, though not all seeds are edible.

Among edible seeds, sesame, flaxseed, pumpkin and melon as well as poppy seeds are particularly healthy, tasty and versatile. In this article we will explore two of these and follow up with the others next time. So, let us Open Sesame first and see what it has to offer. Sesame, also called gingelly, is known as til in Hindi and ellu in Tamil. It occurs in three varieties: black, good for oil; red which has the maximum iron content and golden or ivory which gives the best results for cooking.

Tiny as they are, these seeds are a storehouse of nutrients. To start with, they have high protein content and besides vitamins A, B and C, they boast of a rich mineral profile featuring copper, iron, zinc, molybdenum, selenium and phosphorus. Copper is particularly useful for the elasticity and strength of blood vessels, joints and bones, the latter benefitting from zinc as well. According to Rebecca Woods, an expert in whole foods, sesame is rich in methionine and tryptophan, two amino acids that other vegetable protein foods do not have. Sesame is also high in oil content, giving possibly the highest yield, as the Hindi term tilhan denoting oleaginous seeds indicates. The properties of sesame oil are seemingly so special that it was the preferred massage oil of kings as it relieves stress and tones the nervous system.

Health wise, sesame is very good for the liver and kidney as also to relieve general weakness. In fact according to certain studies, sesame seeds can improve the effectiveness of certain diabetes medication. It also has a low GI (glycemic index).

On the gastronomic front, toasted sesame seeds can be added to salads and sauces to impart a nutty and sweet flavour. Actually, in Indian cuisines, they are used as a tempering for potatoes, dhoklas and, why not, could be tried with idlis also! Konkanis make some lovely chutney with sesame. To make an easy and exotic sauce cum marinade, just mix soy sauce, rice vinegar, crushed garlic and toasted sesame seeds. Before toasting the seeds, one can wash them by plunging them in a bowl of water and straining them and then drying them. This process is said to improve their taste.

Given the high level of oil in sesame, it can go rancid if not properly stored so for best results, one should store them in an airtight container and keep it in a cool and dark place where it will retain its flavour up to three months; for a longer shelf life (up to six months) keep refrigerated.

Let us now turn our attention to flaxseed or if you prefer linseed, known as alsi in Hindi and ali vitai in Tamil. If you thought that sesame is the superstar of the food chart, then wait till you read about flaxseed, which, we are told, is one of the earliest food of humankind dating as far back as 5,000 years ago when Babylonians cultivated it. It is native to the whole region extending from the Mediterranean to India. The Latin name of the plant, linum usitatissimum, means most useful, pointing to its high utility. It is not only used as food but linen is spun from its fibres and in olden days, ships’ sails were fabricated from it. Linseed oil, till date, is used to polish wood.

As a food, flaxseed can truly stake its claim as a superfood given its awesome composition: it is the highest plant source of omega 3 fatty acids which our body cannot produce and which is essential to our bodily functions, being an essential fatty acid (EFA). Together with omega 6, it ensures healthy cell function and brain development as well as the protection of the heart. It also has a vital role to play in strengthening our immune system.

Since flaxseed also has a high prevalence of lignans, which provide polyphenols and phytoestrogens, it contributes to hormonal balance and is deemed to be normalizing the menstrual cycle, naturally. Moreover these elements have antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties, which inhibit various forms of cancer such as colon, breast and prostate.

We now come to the third amazing trait of flaxseed, i.e. its mucilaginous property. Since, in contact with a liquid, flaxseed becomes jellylike, it helps support the intestinal tract, cleaning it, regulating bowel movements and allowing a longer transit time for food, thereby encouraging nutrient absorption.

Another added advantage of this mucilaginous property is that flaxseed can be used as an egg substitute for baking. Three tablespoon flaxseed can be ground and then beaten with the addition of ½ cup water till we obtain a whipped egg white texture; this helps to bind ingredients of a batter. So vegans can rejoice.

As far as culinary uses are concerned, the most common way of using it is to grind it and add it to a batter, dough or a smoothie. So you can make omega 3 enriched pizzas, dosas, muffins or cookies since the alpha linoleic acid (ALA) of the omega 3 remains stable even after prolonged cooking at temperatures reaching 300 degrees farenheit. In Maharashtra, chutney is also made with it and stored in an earthen pot to be eaten with bajra roti.

The recommended amount of flaxseed per day is one to two tablespoon or up to 30gms. It is better to buy flaxseed and grind as per requirement to obtain best result.

Til khoya laddu

Roast one and a half cups of sesame seeds in a large, dry, heavy bottomed frying pan over low heat, tossing continuously till light golden brown. Remove from heat; let it cool and then grind coarsely.

Roast 2 cups of khoya (solidified milk) in a pan over low heat till light golden. Let it cool slightly and then add sesame seeds.

Add 5 tbsp of sugar when mixture is lukewarm. Mix and form into laddus. Sprinkle some slivered almonds over them and serve or store in airtight container.

Dry flaxseed chutney

Dry roast 1 cup flaxseed; add 1 tsp ea chili powder, 1/4 tsp turmeric powder, 1 tsp coriander and cumin powder and salt to taste. Then blend above ingredients; serve with oil and curds as accompaniment to chapatti or rice.


Vandana Shiva on Desi SuperfoodsSeptember 16, 2014