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Sesame seeds

"Sesame seeds offer nothing until they are toasted, lightly, in a dry pan, when all their deep nutty notes come to the fore. Don’t take your eye off them as they toast, the little devils burn in a heartbeat." Nigel Slater

I was going to open this post with a much more mundane photograph but when I found this Black sesame marble cake in delicious. from a cook called Katherine Sabbath I was somewhat blown away and just couldn't resist posting it first. I doubt that any of us are going to make this, unless you are a baking and cake decorating fiend, because it's a very long and complicated recipe. I think you need skill. But sesame seeds? Actually there are no sesame seeds, as such in the cake at all but there is black tahini or black sesame paste. So now that I think about it it does demonstrate the amazing versatility of such a tiny little seed.

I actually started this post ages and ages ago but, for some reason gave up after a few lines. But I kept it and today have resurrected it. Resurrection would be a good thing on a gloomy day like today. Back then I was resisting calling this post 'Open sesame' - far too corny and obvious. However, in a sense it's appropriate because there is really so much you could say about sesame seeds - and so many things you - and others - do with them.

I actually have no idea where the idea for this originally came from. I just found myself wondering what kind of plant sesame seeds came from - was it a tree or what? Well it's actually this plant here - a flowering plant, which looks a bit like a foxglove, which isn't all that high and which has seed pods. They say that that phrase 'open sesame' comes from the fact that the pods tend to burst suddenly revealing the seeds within. And I gather the pods are harvested just before ripening, because otherwise you lose all the seeds as they pop out of the pods. So you have to know the exact moment when they will pop.

Until recently we only ever saw the white seeds here and they were very common on breads and buns if nowhere else. Apparently 75% of Mexico's crop goes to McDonald's - a throwaway fact that is mildly interesting.

Black sesame seeds have become a bit fashionable of late although I haven't noticed much fuss about the brown ones. Just to demonstrate here are a couple more, somewhat fashion conscious black sesame recipes that I found: Black sesame macarons from Linda Xio and Black sesame ice-cream cones from delicious. Well they do say 'black is beautiful' and these three black sweet dishes certainly demonstrate that. Interestingly when I later looked for sesame desserts the vast majority were made with black sesame seeds.

I gather that apart from looking somewhat sensational if you have talent, black sesame seeds have a stronger taste largely because the hulls of the seeds are often left on. Ditto for the browner ones. They also come from a different plant - the black ones that is. I think the white are the same as the brown but with the hull removed.

It's a very, very ancient food - they think as long ago as 5500 years old in India and is definitely the oldest oilseed crop. Tutunkhamun had some in his tomb. It is native to sub-Saharan Africa and also India which is where the domesticated variety originated. It's a tough plant being drought and heat resistant and today most of the world's supply comes from Myanmar and India. That's what Wikipedia and various other sources say anyway, but I wonder whether any bans have been placed on the Myanmar ones. Probably not if they need them. Japan is the biggest importer with China being number 2.

In America they think they may have been introduced by slaves from Africa, who ground them and made these benne wafers to boost their diet. They have health giving properties too - anti-cholesterol being one.

And yes, before using, as Nigel Slater says, it is indeed best to toast them to bring out their nutty flavour and interestingly Yotam Ottolenghi says he has a solution to burning them in a frying pan:

"I’ve found it’s more reliable to do this in a 150C/300F/gas mark 2 oven for five minutes, because, when you toast them in a dry pan on the stovetop, some always seem to burn before the others have a chance to tan."

And you know, he could be right, but you would have to keep your eye on them. I suspect they would burn in the oven just as easily - and all of them. Not that you can pick out tiny burnt sesame seeds from a bigger batch.

For such a tiny thing sesame seeds can take on a surprising number of forms - from oil, which has a very strong but arresting flavour, best used as a tiny sprinkle at the end of cooking, various pastes, including the ubiquitous tahini - to various spice mixes - e.g. dukkah, furikake, shichimi togarashi and za'atar:

I confess that when I looked for recipes I tended to ignore all of those which coated various meats, fish and vegetables with sesame seeds - either alone or in a mix and also all those noodle dishes and salads. You see I'm not a fan, and actually I mostly don't like the look of tiny seeds sprinkled over things. It's a personal quirk for which I apologise. I did find two or three savoury dishes that appealed though: Well Date and black sesame hummus from Anna Jones sounded good but alas I could not find a picture. Sesame prawn toasts - this version is from delicious. and is a common Asian delight though and Adam Liaw contributed Tofu with garlic, sesame and chilli oil- my nod to Asia. I do apologise but there are heaps of recipes out there. However, I did find this Giant mushroom sesame roll with salsa verde from Ixta Belfrage's Mezcla book on her publisher's website The Happy Foodie.

I also ignored all the breads, and the dishes that used tahini or sesame paste because I'm sort of concentrating on the seeds, so when it came to dessert, there were quite a few more to tempt. I may try one of them for my Saturday dessert: Buttermilk pannacotta with sesame brittle and Cheesecake with sesame and mango from Nigel Slater; Sesame banana cake from Ixta Belfrage again on a website called Hein Stirred and Sesame, date and banana cake from Yotam Ottolenghi. Yum to all of them. And I should mention here halva from the Middle East, and til ke laddu from India

And yes, I am a bit besotted with Ixta Belfrage and Yotam Ottolenghi at the moment. I'm sure it will pass and a new cooking hero will appear. In the meantime buy their books.


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