Fresh fruits or chilled beverages are normally what we turn to in the summer… and for good reason.Fresh fruits or chilled beverages are normally what we turn to in the summer… and for good reason. But we’ve already touched upon recipes for those in April – ”the Silkenberry Smoothie and May – ”the Mango Limettes (Mango tartlettes)
So this month, our star food for June is black sesame – ”a nutty, slightly sweet, forward-flavor ingredient that transforms a simple crÃ¨me brulee into a fancy, Asian-influenced one. It’s a fabulous finale to any summer meal, especially when accompanied by a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream sprinkled with black sesame powder. Complement your other summer desserts with something a little more unexpected and exciting!
The Sesame Seed “Story’
Some historians say that sesame seeds, small, flat, teardrop-shaped seeds, originated in India. These seeds were mentioned in early Hindu legends, representing a symbol of immortality. From India, sesame seeds were said to have been introduced throughout the Middle East, Africa and East Asia; then imported from India to Europe during the first century. Sesame was said to have been brought to America by African slaves during the 17th century slave trade, and it subsequently became a popular addition to Southern cooking. You’ll find everything from a graham-cracker-sesame crust for sweet potato pie to sesame wafers.
However, numerous wild relatives of the plant that bears sesame seeds have been found in Africa, raising the notion that the seed may be native to Africa instead. In Africa, the sesame seed is referred to as the “benne seed.’
To top that, according to Assyrian mythology, sesame’s origins come from a myth that tells of the Gods drinking sesame seed wine the night before they created Earth.
The historical path only gets more convoluted because evidence of the use of sesame seeds and sesame oil has been sited in various countries at overlapping times. Specifically where and when the seed emerged is still a question without a conrete answer at this time.
In the Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson deduces that sesame “…was probably introduced into China early in the Christian era, but the first firm evidence of it in China dates from the end of the 5th century AD.” Some sources believe that the Chinese began to use sesame for its oil to light lamps, while others believe that the oil was burned to make special soot for ink. A drawing on an Egyptian tomb from about 4,000 years ago depicts a baker adding sesame seeds to dough. Ancient Greek soldiers carried the seeds as emergency energy rations and the Romans made a type of hummus from sesame and cumin.
As we can also see, how the sesame seed and its other forms were used is not exactly clear – ”there’s no timeline we can map out, but it is a known fact that it plays a significant role in Asian cuisine. And whatever the precise year of its origin may be or which country is the seed’s native homeland, many agree sesame seeds are one of the oldest and most commonly-produced seeds known to man.
Sesame is grown in many parts of the world on over 5 million acres of land. The biggest area of production is currently thought to be India, but the crop is also grown in Africa, China, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South America and Turkey. Commercial production of the seed reportedly began in the 1950s; about 38,000 acres are grown in the southwestern U.S, with 50% of that acreage in Texas. But the U.S. imports more sesame than it grows. An estimated 40,000 tons of sesame seed is annually imported to the U.S. from Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
The sesame seed is derived from an annual herb that yields flowers that range from white to lavender and pink. They can grow as high as seven feet tall, and bloom best in hot, tropical climates. The flowers mature into pods containing the edible sesame seeds which burst with a pop when they are ripe. The famed term “open sesame” from the Arabian book “The Thousand and One Nights”, refers to this sound – ”a popping noise like a lock spring opening. This natural process scatters the seeds, so the pods are often harvested by hand before they are fully ripe.
Sesame seeds are available hulled or unhulled, meaning the seeds are available with or without their husks. But the husks are often removed because they contain about 3 percent oxalic acid, which leaves the seed with a bitter aftertaste. It also can interfere with the absorption of calcium. The ivory-colored hulled seeds are more readily available in markets and are what we normally find on baked goods or sprinkled over Americanized Chinese dishes like Sesame Chicken. When this type is unhulled, it is beige rather than ivory and extremely high in calcium. Unhulled seeds are available in an array of colors depending on the plant variety, from shades of brown, black, red and yellow. Black sesame seeds are slightly more difficult to obtain, but nowadays the internet makes it much easier to purchase. If the local Asian market doesn’t carry any sesame seeds, many online food outlets can have a bag or canister shipped right to your door. The darker the seed, the more pungent the flavor profile, but beware of dyed seeds. These are “counterfeit,’ and lack body and flavor from its authentic counterpart.
We don’t always notice how prevalent sesame seeds are in our food. But when you think about what you may have eaten this past month or even this week, you’ll find that those tiny, fragrant, nutty seeds find their way on to many dishes… cold, hot, sweet or savory. Even if you don’t eat Asian food much, chances are, if you had a bagel, burger, cracker, salad or bread stick, it may have had sesame seeds. Also, Middle Eastern food often includes sesame, like hummus, a mashed chickpea spread frequently combined with tahini. Tahini is made of hulled, lightly roasted sesame seeds ground into a fine paste.
The sesame seed is enjoyed in various forms that allow us to savor its nutty, slightly sweet flavor: 1) as a seed, 2) as a paste, 3) as a powder, and 4) as an oil. While use of sesame seeds are definitely not limited to East Asian fare as shown by Middle Eastern preparations like tahini, in this article we’d like to highlight its presence in Asian dishes.
Except for some Japanese, Korean and a few Chinese dishes, it is the ivory-colored, hulled sesame seeds most used as mentioned before. Hulled, toasted sesame seeds are indispensable in certain Japanese and Korean sauces and marinades. And here are more preparations that rely on sesame seeds:
East Asian sesame paste is made of unhulled, roasted seeds. The paste is a key ingredient in Szechuan dan dan noodles, a spicy sauce made of ground peanut and sesame served over noodles. Because East Asian sesame paste is made from unhulled seeds, it is more bitter than tahini, but higher in some nutrients (sometimes the commercial process of de-husking the seeds compromises the nutrients). Paste made from black sesame seeds is said to have higher nutritional value than any other variety.
Sesame paste is also used in the Japanese dish, neri-goma, which consists of boiled spinach, sesame paste, soy sauce, mirin and sugar. Goma-dofu also includes sesame paste; it’s a tofu-based custard mixed with sesame paste, soymilk and a thickening agent like corn starch or a seaweed extract called agar-agar.
Black sesame soup is often eaten in China, particularly in Cantonese cuisine. Instant packets are available so you can prepare the gruel-like dessert in a few minutes as you would with packaged oatmeal. However, oftentimes the powder will be labeled “Black Sesame Paste’ on packages.
In Thailand and other parts of Southeast-Asia, black sesame dessert soups or puddings made of sesame powder are extremely popular. These are similar to the Chinese black sesame soups, but coconut cream or coconut milk, sugar, peanuts and corn flour are usually added. These “puddings’ are not as thick in viscosity as American versions, but to achieve a richer consistency you can add corn starch or potato starch.
The seed can be found coated around sushi rolls, topped over salads, sprinkled over any dish like General Tso’s Chicken, or patted on top of a scallion pancake… basically wherever a garnish or a subtle accent flavor is needed.
In Sri Lanka, one of the most popular confections is a sticky mixture of hulled white sesame seeds and palm sugar pounded together, shaped into bite-sized balls. These are customarily sold by roadside vendors and known as thala-guli (sesame pills).
Tan and black sesame seed varieties are roasted, combined with salt and used for making the Japanese condiment gomashio.
A Chinese dim sum treat uses sesame seeds to coat a fried, chewy glutinous rice flour ball filled with sweet paste. These are normally translated as “sesame balls.’
Chinese sesame confections are one of the easiest ways to enjoy sesame seeds – ”both ivory and black types. Roasted sesame seeds are mixed with honey or sweet syrup; when dried, they are cut into bite-sizes and served as snacks or candy.
In Korean cuisine, sesame oil and roasted or raw seeds are used to marinate meat and vegetables. Oftentimes you may find the seeds sprinkled over seaweed salad, or cold, pickled vegetables. Bulgogi – ”made with sliced sirloin marinated in sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar, garlic, peppers, wine – ”is very popular Korean dish. It’s frequently garnished with sesame seeds.
Note: Sesame oil is the best for marinating as it is easily and quickly absorbed into meats, adding a roasted, nutty flavor accent. It has a very high boiling point and may burn very quickly so is best suited for deep-frying. When not used for cooking, it has been applied to the body and hair for medicinal purposes from darkening hair to nourish deep tissue layers.
To magnify the nutty flavor and achieve an attractive deep golden color, toast the ivory-colored seeds in a small, dry skillet for about 15 minutes in a 350 degree oven. But do this only the ivory ones. Black sesame seeds have an earthy taste in their raw state and are not suitable for toasting as they become bitter.
Because of high oil content, sesame seeds turn rancid quickly. They can be stored airtight in a cool, dark place for up to 2 years. After this time, they tend to loose their original flavor.
Seeds of change
Sesame seeds are a source of sesamin, a rather newly discovered remedy for high blood pressure and early phases of high cholesterol. In traditional Chinese medicine, sesame seeds fortify both the liver and the kidneys, relieve blurry vision and dizziness. They also relieve constipation.
Sesame seeds are an excellent source of calcium, iron, magnesium, protein, and essential fatty acids (EFA), helping to maintain soft, healthy and vibrant skin and hair.
Lastly, if you have naturally black hair, you’re in luck. Consuming black sesame has been said to prevent hair loss and curb the graying of hairs. Sometimes “black sesame soup’ is referred to as “grow hair soup’ because it helps grow strong, dark, healthy hair.
Black Sesame CrÃ¨me Brulee
Yields about 6 servings
For this recipe, we used instant black sesame paste used for soups (really in powder form) not only because it’s much more convenient to find in stores, but it allows the crÃ¨me brulee to take on a rich, creamy and viscous character, resembling that of traditional Mexican flan. The “paste’ is an ash-gray powder because it usually contains corn starch so that the dessert soup can have a thicker consistency.
- 1 jumbo egg
- 4 jumbo egg yolks
- 3/4 black sesame paste (instant black sesame soup packets)
- 1/2 cup sugar, plus 1 additional tablespoon for each serving
- 2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 cups all-natural heavy cream
- Optional: vanilla bean ice cream, black sesame seeds
- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
- Mix the egg, yolks and 1/2 cup sugar until well blended.
- Heat the cream in a saucer. Remove when the edges begin to bubble, but just before it boils. It should be very hot.
- With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the cream to the eggs. If you don’t have a mixer, you can do it by hand with a fork, but the fork must be in motion at ALL times when the hot cream is poured in. Without constant and steady mixing, the cream may cook the eggs, causing chunks to form, spoiling the entire contents.
- After the cream has been successfully incorporated, blend in the vanilla and black sesame paste.
- Place 6 ramekins in a baking pan and carefully pour boiling water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
- Ladle the mixture into the ramekins until almost full.
- Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the custards are set when gently shaken.
- Remove the crÃ¨me brulee from the water, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate for at least an hour.
- Before serving, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar evenly on top of each ramekin
- With a kitchen torch, caramelize the sugar and until you get a nice, toasted brown color. Allow the caramelized sugar to harden by letting it sit for 1 minute.
- After the sugar hardens, add a small scoop of vanilla bean ice cream to each ramekin and shower the whole ensemble with some whole black sesame seeds or a bit more of the instant black sesame powder.
Melody grew up loving to write, especially about food, and went on to receive a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley. Her last position at a food magazine allowed her to live out her then dream job of eating fancy foods everyday and critiquing their flavors and textures for articles. Now, she works for The New York Daily News and invents Asian-fusion recipes for Asiance. You can reach Melody at email@example.com or visit her MyAsiance page at my.asiancemagazine.com/mymelody.