Open sesame

"This tiny seed punches above its weight." Gill Meller - River Cottage A-Z

The phrase 'open sesame' comes, they think, from the fact that sesame seed pods pop open when they are ripe, thus exposing the treasure within. And treasure it is indeed. And I will come to that.


The phrase is also particularly apt for this post because, once again, what I thought might be relatively simple has, of course, turned into possibly too much.


What I really wanted to know was where did sesame seeds come from - in terms of what kind of plant I mean. A tree, a bush, a creeper ...? It turns out that the answer is that it comes from a rather modest looking but very drought hardy plant. It is very old, and possibly the first oil producing plant in the world. Domestication and usage, albeit mostly from wild plants dates back almost 4,000 years they think. Origins are also a bit unsure but they think sub-Saharan Africa, or maybe India, although this may be where it was first domesticated. As to Africa, well apparently Ethiopia is still considered to have the best sesame seeds, and indeed some of the major exporters today are still African, with Myanmar and India being the next most important. Japan, by the way, is the biggest importer.

The seed pods unfortunately do not all open at once, and so the stems are cut off the plant and stood upright whilst the seeds pods ripen. They also need to dry out a bit before processing, which consists of hulling them primarily. If they are too fresh they will be too moist.


Why am I talking about sesame seeds? Well, as I said, it was my birthday yesterday, and my lovely family, knowing my addiction to cookbooks have given me three. All very different to each other. The first of these that I have read - yes read - well read in the sense of reading a cookbook, was Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's Jerusalem. It just happened to be on the top of the pile. It's a relatively early Ottolenghi production but one I have always meant to collect. And it is especially interesting to read it in the context of my recent disappointment with Falastin. Almost the same region and almost the same authors, even the same designers, but somehow or other I prefer Jerusalem. As I read through it there were at least three recipes that immediately caught my eye, and many more maybes. Not quite the same reaction to Falastin. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood.


Anyway one of the things that leapt out at me as I perused Jerusalem was Ottolenghi's love affair with tahini in general and tahini sauce in particular. He always has a love affair with one ingredient or other and in this book it was tahini sauce. In his words:


"Rare is the dish not improved with a drizzle of tahini sauce, made from simply mixing raw tahini with some lemon juice, water, garlic and salt."


There actually seem to be three slightly different tahini sauces - a plain one, a green one and a yoghurt one.

According to Ottolenghi the plain one is made with 150g light tahini paste, 120ml water, 2 tbsp lemon juice, 1 medium garlic clove, crushed and 1/4 tsp salt. You beat the paste from the jar until the oil and the paste are combined, then you beat in the other ingredients. For the green sauce (from Falastin) the ingredients are 75g tahini, 2 tbsp lemon juice, 2 garlic cloves crushed, 20g parsley, finely chopped and salt. Same method, but you add the parsley last. Greg Malouf - just to vary the chefs - has a recipe for Tahini-yoghurt sauce which seems to be somewhat thicker. Greg Malouf says of tahini, and his recipe for the yoghurt sauce:


"It is enormously popular around the Middle East, where it is also used, thinned down with water and flavoured with garlic and lemon juice, as a sauce for cold baked fish. On its own, it can be too strong and bitter for European palates, but combined with yoghurt, it becomes smooth and creamy with a mysteriously earthy flavour." Greg and Lucy Malouf


So maybe we Europeans should go for the yoghurt version, for interestingly Ottolenghi says that when filming a documentary on Jerusalem food:


"we tried to get James and Lauren, the crew from England, to catch the tahini bug. We never managed, even when we sneaked it into their food behind their backs. They both spotted it and thought it just spoilt everything, whether a juicy kebab or a fresh salad. They understood the idea behind mixing it into hummus, but not having it as the star ingredient in a sauce."


And I'm not quite sure about myself either. Indeed I'm not sure I have tried it as a sauce at all and wonder whether I would like it or not.

The sauces have almost infinite uses of course. Fish and vegetables seem to be the favourites. Ottolenghi's Roast butternut squash and red onion with tahini and za'atar is a pretty typical example, as is Greg Malouf's baked salmon tarator style (shown below) which according to Maeve O'Mara is one of the most delicious things she has ever tasted - but then she is a bit prone to exaggeration and, let it be said, good manners. Mind you Greg Malouf cooks pretty amazing food, so try it. Also shown below are two different views of Ottolenghi's open kibbeh - a sort of lamb mince and burgher cake with the tahini sauce on top. Looks like a pretty sensational dish to serve.

I see I have leapt straight into the tahini side of sesame seeds - mostly because of the domination of it as an ingredient in Jerusalem. So a few more words on the subject before I move on, or maybe back, to the seeds themselves.


To most of us, tahini means hummus and baba ganoush and both of these deserve posts of their own. And why not? They look gorgeous, they taste gorgeous and you don't even have to make your own these days - though try and make sure you buy a really good one if you are buying. Simple to make though. You should try it. Bon appétit has a short and snappy video showing you how to make hummus and then how to make it look sensational. (You can use canned chick peas if you like.)

Ottolenghi, however takes it one step further in Jerusalem with this wonderful looking

butternut squash and tahini spread (one of my three immediate got to trys). I can only assume that it tastes as good as it looks, judging from the number of different people who have tried it and posted it on their own blogs. This is what one of them says of it:


"Creamy and intense, this essentially turns tahini into something that I would eat by the spoonful. However, it’s rich, and is even better when smeared across a crusty bread. Next time, I might add cayenne for some heat, and possibly even a bit of lime or balsamic to cut it a little bit further. Overall though, this was a hit, and would certainly act as a conversation starter if serving to guests. It has this whole sweet-meets-savory dynamic that begs for questions, and also double dipping." - Food, Fitness, Fresh Air


The sweet part by the way is date syrup which is drizzled over the top. If you can't get date syrup try maple syrup or even Golden syrup instead, says Ottolenghi.


And before we leave tahini and sweet - look at this amazing Ottolenghi confection - sesame date and banana cake. I'm not

sure which book this comes from but it sure looks delicious and impressive.


Plus one last word about the tahini you use. According to most of the people I found talking about tahini - and Ottolenghi and Tamimi in particular:


"If what you think of as tahini is not creamy and delicious and nutty enough to eat directly from the jar, then you’re missing a trick ...


Unlike Greek or Cypriot tahini, which I find to be claggy and bitter, tahini from the Middle East is creamy enough to pour over porridge, nutty enough to spread on toast, and smooth enough to eat by the spoon."


Well the jar I have in my cupboard is actually Australian made from imported ingredients so I'm not quite sure where that falls in the scale of good to bad. The best, by the way, seems to be the Ethiopian ones, followed by Palestinian and then Arab. I have also sinned in that my tahini is probably a bit old - it's one of those lurkers in the pantry. Ottolenghi seems to think that once opened it should be stored in the fridge and kept for a mere three weeks. Mine is therefore definitely past it.


I did call this post 'Open Sesame' and indeed that is what has happened really. I've opened a sort of Pandora's box which can't be properly contained here.


I will briefly mention sesame oil, which is more of an Asian thing. Particularly Japanese in fact. It is made from extracting the oil - sesame seeds are 50% oil - from toasted sesame seeds. I think the degree of toasting results in different strengths of the oil, or maybe it's different kinds of seeds. It can be used for cooking - but only the light ones. Mostly it is added at the end of Asian dishes and I have to say it gives a quite remarkable flavour boost. But, really this needs a whole lot more research and a whole post of its own.


As to sesame seeds themselves.

Well this is how I knew sesame seeds - just sprinkled on bread. In fact we Europeans have not really been very imaginative in our use of them. I wonder why? And I wonder why the Middle-Easterners seem to be the ones addicted to tahini and the Asians to oil? The seeds gave a nice taste, but personally I preferred the poppy seeded breads to the sesame seeded ones.


The seeds we know are mostly the white ones, and if we ever see them darker than that it's because we have toasted them. But actually they come in a variety of shades of white through beige and brown to black. Sesame seeds are, of course, very nutritious and according to many very healthy - good for cholesterol was one thing I saw. So you find them in cereals, biscuits, snack bars, and bread things. And of course they also get sprinkled on things like salads and veggies.


The most extraordinary recipe I saw was for black sesame macarons which look very impressive and chic. However I did see someone refer to the black seeds as having a very strong taste .

But let's not forget those wonderful spice mixes - dukkah, za'atar and their very many variants. There are also Japanese spice mixes featuring sesame seeds and doubtless the Indians too - although I don't remember coming across many. I am, once again, ignoring Africa - that huge continent that must have such a varied range of cuisines, and since the spice seems to be big in Ethiopia one would think that it is used there. I really must look into African food some time. I know nothing about it - other than the Mediterranean African lands that is.


Tahini is not the be all and end all of this lovely book though. Thank you Dionne. It's gorgeous. So I will have another think and decide what else I can write about. I should also have another fresher look at Falastin. I might have just read it on a bad day. And I note that I have constantly referred to Ottolenghi in this post, whilst ignoring Sami Tamimi who is a co-author, not an assistant. There is no way of telling who the 'I' in the text is. Is it Ottolenghi, or Tamimi, or both at different times? This second fiddle status may well be the reasoning behind Falastin. I wonder why Ottolenghi became the 'face' of the empire and not Tamimi? Maybe there's another post there.

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