A treat from the East

Discover the power of sesame seeds.

sesame salad 88 298 (photo credit: )
sesame salad 88 298
(photo credit: )
I discovered the flavoring power of sesame seeds in an unlikely place - in Paris, at a casual macrobiotic eatery called Auberge Inn. The food served was completely plain - steamed brown rice with vegetables. But our meals were appealing thanks to gomasio. This simple Japanese condiment of toasted black sesame seeds and salt transformed the humble fare into tasty entrees. Gomasio is not the only kind of seasoned sesame sprinkles. For the popular Middle Eastern condiment, za'atar, the seeds are blended with an herb resembling thyme and combined with olive oil, then used for sprinkling on bread. According to Neelam Batra, the author of 1000 Indian Recipes (Wiley, 2002), South Indians have their own savory sesame blend too. To make it, the sauteed sesame seeds are combined with fenugreek seeds, hot pepper flakes and asafetida and used as a last-minute garnish for cooked vegetables, meats or rice. Thought to have originated in Africa, sesame seeds have traveled around the world and have been prized in the Mideast and in China since ancient times. You'll find them sprinkled on Japanese sushi, Moroccan sweet tajines (stews) of meat and dried fruit and spicy Mexican mole poblano sauce made with chiles and chocolate. Look around the supermarket and you'll see sesame seeds on a variety of breads, from hamburger buns to halla to bagels, and, of course, on burekas. At the Village Green restaurant in Jerusalem, I enjoyed delicious sesame coated tofu burgers, which demonstrated how good the seeds are in crunchy coatings. They're also used this way by American chefs, who prepare sesame-crusted fish, and by Chinese cooks who make sesame beef. Sesame seeds make super sweets as well, from sesame brittle to crunchy Middle Eastern sesame pistachio barazi cookies to the benne seed cookies of the American south. Benne, a US term for sesame, originated with the African slaves, who brought their seeds to America. You can buy white hulled sesame seeds, the most common type, or, at health food stores, unhulled beige seeds. In Asian markets you might find black sesame seeds, which are used in some Chinese sweets and East Asian dishes. High in calcium, sesame seeds are also a good source of copper, magnesium, iron, zinc, vitamin B6 and fiber. The easiest way to use sesame seeds is to simply toast them in a skillet for a few minutes and sprinkle them over salads, cooked rice or steamed vegetables. In some markets you can buy the seeds already toasted, ready to munch on as a snack. Lovers of Chinese, Japanese and Korean food are familiar with aromatic, amber sesame oil, which is pressed from toasted sesame seeds and added to dishes as a last-minute seasoning. Clear sesame oil is made from untoasted seeds and used as a cooking oil in south India. Cooks value both kinds of oil because they do not easily turn rancid. Sesame seeds are also made into sesame paste, which resembles peanut butter in consistency. In China the paste is made from toasted sesame seeds, which give it a dark color and rich aroma resembling that of Asian sesame oil. It is much different in color and flavor from our light beige Middle Eastern sesame paste, tehina, which many of us first encounter as a pale sauce drizzled over felafel but which is also delicious as a sauce for fish and vegetables. In Turkey I've even had tehina in sweet breakfast pastries shaped like cinnamon rolls. At first, the idea is quite surprising, but when you think of it, sesame halva is essentially sweetened tehina. Halva made of sesame seeds is the most popular type. (Halva, by the way, is also made of a variety of other ingredients, including sunflower seeds, semolina and even carrots.) Originally a Middle Eastern sweet, sesame halva is also found in Ashkenazi Jewish delis in pistachio, vanilla and chocolate flavors. Today Middle Eastern chefs use it in desserts, like the luscious parve halva ice cream cake created by Nili Goldstein of Magic Carpet restaurant, a wonderful kosher Yemenite restaurant in Los Angeles. TOASTING SESAME SEEDS Preheat the oven to 175º. Put the sesame seeds on a small baking sheet and toast, shaking pan occasionally, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer immediately to a plate. To toast a few tablespoons of seeds in a skillet, put seeds in a small, heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Toast them, shaking pan often, about 4 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer immediately to a plate. KOREAN CARROTS WITH ZUCCHINI A simple dressing flavored with toasted sesame seeds and sesame oil lends zest to this quick vegetable saute. Serve it hot as a side dish or cold as a salad. 450 gr. carrots, cut in thin matchsticks 2 Tbsp. plus 2 tsp. soy sauce 2 tsp. Asian (toasted) sesame oil 2 Tbsp. rice wine or dry sherry 1⁄2 to 1 tsp. chili oil or hot sauce, or to taste 2 medium garlic cloves, minced 11⁄2 to 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil 450 gr. zucchini or pale-skinned summer squash (kishuim), cut in thin sticks 1 Tbsp. finely chopped green onion 1 Tbsp. sesame seeds, toasted (see above) Put carrots in a saucepan with water to cover, bring to a boil and cook 3 minutes. Drain carrots. In a small bowl combine soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, chili oil and garlic. Mix well. Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add zucchini and saute 2 minutes. Add carrots and sprinkle with salt. Toss briefly over heat until vegetables are just tender. Add sauce and toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve sprinkled with green onions and toasted sesame seeds. Makes 4 side-dish servings or 2 main-course servings with rice. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.