Sesame seeds

Sesame seeds

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

Sesame seeds are as familiar to us as the story of Ali Baba and his cave of treasure. They were cultivated and traded as a precious commodity by ancient civilisations, who mixed them with other grains to make a coarse flour, or crushed them for their oil. Not only was sesame oil one of the first oils used in cooking around Egypt, the Middle East and Indus Valley and the Mediterranean, it was also in huge demand for lighting, as an emollient and for use in ancient medicine.

Today we tend to associate sesame oil mainly with Asian cooking, where a few drops add a unique nutty flavour to many stir-fried dishes. In the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean they use mainly sesame seeds. These are added to spice mixes such as dukkah, sprinkled as garnish onto salads and vegetable dishes, and added to all manner of breads, biscuits and cakes. When Greg and I were honeymooning in Lebanon and Syria we often ate crunchy sesame-encrusted bracelets of bread, known as ‘kahk’, for breakfast. Similar versions of these biscuit-like breads are sold by street vendors all around the region, from Lebanon and Syria to Egypt, Greece and Turkey.

No self-respecting Middle Eastern home would be without a jar of tahini in the refrigerator. Made from crushed sesame seeds, tahini looks a little like a smooth, rather oily peanut butter, and has a strong earthy, nutty flavour. Tahini is used as a base for Arabic dips, like hummus and baba ghanoush. Thinned down, it is also served as an accompaniment to baked fish.

Sesame is also a favourite ingredient in confectionery. The whole seeds are used to coat sticky sweets and to make crunchy toffee brittles, while ground to a fine powder they add flavour to the mysterious, sand-coloured sweet known in the Middle East as ‘halawa’, or in Greece as ‘halvah’.

Selecting, storing and using sesame seeds

Sesame seeds come in two colours – black and white, although the white seeds are far more widely available. White sesame seeds may be purchased hulled or unhulled – in the latter case they are actually a dull-beige colour. These may be used interchangeably, although some Asian and Middle Eastern cooks prefer the flavour of the unhulled seeds. Black sesame seeds are used for their dramatic visual effect on flat breads. They are oilier and have a more intense flavour.

Regardless of colour, the flavour of all sesame seeds is greatly improved by dry-roasting. They need only a few moments gentle tossing over a medium heat, which will send them popping all around the pan. Roasting brings out a lovely toasty aroma, and turns the seeds a shade or two darker. They can be stored quite well for several weeks after toasting, although that just-roasted nutty quality fades slowly over time. The dry-roasted seeds can also be given a quick whiz in a spice grinder, to make a thick coarse paste to thicken sauces, dips and dressings.

Tahini is used with gay abandon in the Middle East. Don’t confuse it with the Chinese and Japanese sesame pastes – these are made from roasted sesame seeds and are darker and stronger than tahini. Tahini may taste almost bitter straight from the jar, but diluted with lemon juice and water and whisked to make a dressing or sauce, it has a smooth creaminess and an incomparable nutty flavour.

You will probably find that your tahini separates out in the jar, and that you have a thick layer of oil floating on top. This needs to be vigorously mixed back into the paste before use, which requires a certain amount of muscle. Once opened, tahini will keep for 4–6 weeks in the refrigerator.

Recipes in this Chapter

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