Vasundhara Chauhan

Gourmet Files: Open Sesame

It's everywhere: All burger buns are now sprinkled with sesame seeds. Photo: Special Arrangements  

Sesame seems to be opening doors to hipness. Every restaurant has a salad with sesame crusted chicken and Chinese/salad greens, “lightly tossed”. As my daughter asked, did the chef use feathers to put it together?

Back where I come from til or sesame was used only for winter sweets like gajak, rewri and til bhugga. Even hamburgers in those days were deep fried, crisp, cold and hard, so oily that the paper napkin they came wrapped in turned transparent; there was no question of being topped with fragrant oilseeds. And now look at them. Even the least “artisan”, the most pedestrian hamburgers have a sprinkling of sesame seed on the bun. (Apparently a third of Mexico's sesame seed crop is exported to the US, where it is bought by McDonald's for their hamburger buns).

Ancient legacy

To give them the benefit of the doubt, it's possible they're doing this to preserve ancient culture because Dioscorides records that even 20 centuries ago, sesame seed was sprinkled on bread in Sicily. And we hadn't even heard of gingelly oil, let alone tahini.

Paste version

Korea, Myanmar and Vietnam make some version of sesame paste. Tahini is an oily cream, a paste, extracted from sesame seeds. The seeds are first soaked in water for 25 hours (why not 24?) before being crushed with a heavy hammer to loosen the bran from the kernels. The crushed seeds are put to soak again in heavily salted water, for the bran to sink while the kernels float to the surface and are skimmed off. Then they are grilled and finally ground in a mill so that a thick oily cream is made. There is a dark and a light variety, and either can be used as a base for savoury dips like hummus, tarator, baba ghanoush, and some sweets, like halva. But the point is making either is a laborious process, one which I wouldn't dare attempt at home. Years ago, before tahini became visible in the neighbourhood grocery store I used to ask friends to bring me some from their travels. And in those days a local friend who enjoys cooking laughed and said she made her own: “I just grind it in the blender's smallest jar”. And hey presto, is tahini created? I doubt it.

Health benefits

So much pretentious noise is made about sesame seed in restaurants that it takes away from the ease and joy of using it. We toast about half a cupful at a time on a dry griddle, just until its golden brown, cool and store it. Then, sprinkled on a salad or cooked chicken, or even on fried noodles or rice, it elevates the dish to a nutty richness. Small amounts should be added just before serving, so that the characteristic fragrance is not lost. Sesame is considered to have “heating” properties, and eaten only in winter. Since it has a high content of calcium (17 per cent) and iron (55 per cent), it's worth adding to one's food as often as possible.

Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 12:23:37 AM |

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