Thursday, January 13, 2011

Open sesame, TOI Crest, Dec 30, 2010, (Posting the unedited version as it has some interesting bits they edited out.)

From salads and satay,to paneer and poached eggs,there's nothing this versatile seed doesn't spice up ...


Clich├ęd as that may sound, this phrase synonymous with Sesame, (deriving from the sound - like a lock spring opening – that ripe sesame seeds make when they burst out of their pods) seems appropriate to open a post on Sesame with. In India sesame is best known for its use in Til laddus  proffered as ambassadors of goodwill at Sankrant with the words ‘til gud ghya, god god bola” (eat sweet and speak sweet) and in the west sesame is best recognised as a garnish on buns. But go past Sesame’s most obvious uses and the culinary versatility of these seeds will inspire an “open sesame” moment bursting with possibility for you!
Sesame has been used in kitchens worldwide for millennia and continues to be an ingredient of significance today. You can use it raw but a little heat therapy enhances the inherent nutty flavours a thousand fold and increases its shelf life. Being an oilseed it is prone to turning rancid quickly, so it is advisable to roast them and store in air tight containers. Having roasted seeds on hand has interesting benefits. Take a bite out of any Asian cuisine and you will see that these colours make an attractive garnish for anything from appetisers to desserts. These little oval seeds come in three main colours; an unhusked version in shades of beige and another in black and a husked uniformly creamy white sesame. Sprinkle them onto anything to add health and flavour to everyday meals.
Anyone who is mindful of what they eat should add sesame to their diet, it offers a tasty alternative to dairy products offering thrice the amount of calcium, compared to milk. According to nutritionist Naini Setalvad, “One tbsp of Sesame Calories contains 52 calories, 88 mg Calcium, 1.3 mg Iron, 32 mg Magnesium. It is also rich in vitamin A, some B vitamins, a source of healthy fat, Methionine and Tryptophan and a significant source of other amino acids that make it an exceptional stabiliser of amino acids in vegetarian diets when combined with grains and legumes. You could also get creative by combining sesame with other ingredients to make interesting spice mixes and seasonings that enhance the nutrition of any dish they are added to.
Take inspiration from Middle Eastern cuisine and mix up a batch of Zahtar, an everyday spice mix traditionally eaten combined with a little olive oil and spread on flat bread for breakfast or to dip bread in at snack times. It is also used to spice meat and vegetables dishes, and sprinkled on Labneh (a thick hung yogurt cheese) or fried eggs as a garnish. I make mine by combining toasted sesame with dried thyme, salt and amchur to replace the sumac that is traditionally used but hard to find in India. The beauty of Zahtar is that it can be nutty, salty, sour or herby, however you prefer it. Start with a small quantity and adjust to taste. It is great on naan and kulcha, in raitas and even sprinkled on chunks of paneer or chicken and grilled. The sprinkle I'm hooked to, however is Gomasio, a toasted sesame seed condiment that is ubiquitous at the Japanese table. Consisting of toasted sesame ground coarsely with salt it is great with anything from a simple bowl of brown rice to salads, noodles, steamed vegetables, even khichdi. I just combine granular sea salt and toasted sesame seed in a pepper mill and place it on the table.
Another interesting way to eat whole sesame is as sprouts added to salads, clear soups or stirred into hot rice with a drizzle of toasted sesame oil and salt. Not being as robust as other sprouting friendly seeds, sesame need a little careful handling but yields delicious results. To sprout, soak a cup of unhusked sesame (you will find these at organic stores such as Navdanya) in water until swollen (a few hours). Drain, dry thoroughly, by rubbing gently with kitchen paper and spread thinly in a casserole or airtight flat container with a sheet of kitchen paper underneath. Leave at room temperature for a few hours and refrigerate overnight. You will see tiny little sprouts sticking out of the pointy end of the sesame seeds in the morning.
Grinding toasted sesame opens up a whole new range of flavours. Although South India is best known for its use of sesame, I have discovered that the cuisine of Uttarakhand uses a lot of ground sesame in its winter dishes. Crushed Sesame adds a nutty accent when stirred into Lobia khichdi. In the piquant Khatte Aloo boiled potatoes are cooked in a mixture of yogurt, toasted sesame meal and chillies. But two of the most delicious sesame dishes of this region are Garhwali Til ki Chutney and Pinni ka Saag. In the chutney toasted ground sesame is spiced with toasted cumin, ginger, green chillies, and ground into a textured chutney with the juice of the Bada Nimbu (large wild lemons that come into season in the winter), and Pinni ka saag is a “Saag” or gravy that is eaten with rice made from Pinni or compressed seed cakes left over from the oil extraction process of sesame. With the oil removed, these become extremely high in protein and dietary fibre and when one does not have access to Pinni, one can crush sesame in a mortar and leave in the sun in a strainer for the oil to drain out and the leftover seeds meal used to make the saag.
When you grind Sesame until it gives forth its oil you also get Tahini or Sesame butter, a staple condiment in the Middle East and very versatile to have on hand. Stir it into hummus the traditional way or swirl into yogurt for an instant dip, add honey to that combination and you have a quick dip for fruit. Substitute it for peanut butter to make sesame satay or use it to add body to fortify soups and even Indian gravies. Sesame makes a great butter because it is extremely high in its oil content. No wonder then that Asia is the largest consumer of sesame for oil extraction. Cold pressed ‘Gingelly’ oil is the oldest recorded oil used in Indian cuisine but considering how long we have been pressing sesame for oil, it is confounding that nobody thought to toast the seed prior to extracting its oil... Something that the rest of Asia has been using for millennia to produce the most magical ingredient, Toasted Sesame oil!
Now available at Nature’s basket and other fine food stores it comes in small 250 ml bottles. The roasting process intensifies the nutty sesame flavour so Toasted Sesame oil is used more as a condiment or flavouring oil rather than for actual cooking and a little goes a long way but you will be amazed at how important it becomes in your kitchen; drizzle over poached or fried eggs, replace it for olive oil in honey vinaigrettes for a delicious variation of salad dressing, swirl a few drops into soups – it pairs well with any flavour but is especially good with Tomato, Asian and clear soups, marinate tofu or chicken in it with a little garlic, honey and lemon juice and panfry for a quick and interesting dish. In fact it even goes well drizzled over ice creams!  
Sesame’s nutty flavours work beautifully in both savoury and sweet dishes, the plethora of laddus and chikkis that tempt us are testament to this fact in Indian cuisine. Sesame is also used in sweet preparations around the world. All over the Middle East you will find sesame halva. Nothing like our Indian halvas this comes in large blocks, and is sliced off and sold by weight. Try a small piece and you will find that it just melts into a nutty, sweet toffee that glides down your throat that is hard to stop eating it! Try adding sesame meal to sugar syrup to make it at home. In Asian cuisine, a favourite dessert is the sweet Black Sesame Soup of Cantonese cuisine. Asian supermarkets worldwide usually carry instant mix packets for it but I have make it at home by boiling crushed black sesame or toasted unhusked sesame with water, and sweetened with honey or jaggery. It is a great dessert for children who detest milk.

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