Friday, 3 July 2009
Sesame is one of the oldest seeds known to man and is an essential ingredient for Middle Eastern, South Asian and Oriental cooking. Thought to have originated in India or Africa, sesame (Sesamum indicum) is a flowering plant in the genus Sesamum. It is widely naturalized in tropical regions around the world and is cultivated for its edible seeds, which grow in pods. The flowers of the sesame seed plant are yellow, though they can vary in colour with some being blue or purple.
The word sesame is derived from the Latin word sesamum, when traced back in ages, comes from the Assyrian word shaman shammī or "plant oil". In India, where sesame has been cultivated since the Harappan period, there are two independent names for the seed: tila or til in northern parts of India and ellu or nuvvulu in southern India.
Despite the fact that the majority of the wild species of the genus Sesamum are native to sub-saharan Africa, it is said that sesame was first domesticated in India, with archaeological evidence showing that it was cultivated at Harappa in the Indus Valley between 2250 and 1750 BC, and more recently, charred sesame seeds were found in Miri Qalat and Shahi Tump in the Makran region of Pakistan.
However, the first written record of sesame dates even further back to 3,000 BC to Assyria. In the Assyrian text, according to its mythology, sesame's origins go back even farther - of the Gods imbibing sesame seed wine the night before they created the earth. References can be found to Babylonians using sesame oil, and to Egyptians growing their own sesame to make flour. Of course Persia, birthplace of the 1001 Arabian Nights, has long been savvy to sesame's benefits. Who could forget “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves” and the incantation “Open Sesame”. Ancient Persians relied on sesame as a food source and for its medicinal qualities.
Farther east, it's unclear when sesame first found its way to China. Some sources claim the Chinese were using sesame oil in their lamps as far back as 5,000 years ago, while others state sesame seeds were introduced into China about 2,000 years ago. It's probably true that the ancients first relied on the sesame plant to provide oil, and only later discovered its value as a food source. However, first firm evidence of it in China dates from the end of the 5th century AD.
While the exact circumstances surrounding sesame's arrival in China may be lost to history, there's no doubt that today it is a mainstay of Chinese cuisine. Toasted sesame seeds are sprinkled on salads, sesame paste is added to sauces, and delightfully aromatic sesame oil is used to flavour everything from dips to marinades.
The seeds of the sesame plant are featured in many Asian cuisines. Spice paste concoctions made with sesame seeds enhance Indian dishes, and sesame seeds play a role in Japanese vegetarian cooking. In China, sesame seeds are used to flavor cakes, cookies, and popular desserts such as sesame seed balls and fried custard. You'll also find them in savory dishes.
Both black and white sesame seeds are used in Chinese cooking. (A third variety of beige colored sesame seeds is not as popular). Like sesame oil, white sesame seeds have a nutty flavor, while black sesame seeds taste more bitter. However, whether a recipe calls for white or black seeds often has more to do with the appearance of a dish rather than flavour.
White sesame seeds are nearly always toasted before using. There are differing opinions over the value of toasting black sesame seeds, as it can accentuate the bitter flavour - let your taste buds make the decision. Because sesame seeds contain a high percentage of oil, it's best to store them in the refrigerator if you plan on keeping them for more than two or three months. Otherwise, they can be kept in a covered jar at room temperature. In any event, check and make sure they don't smell rancid before using.
Sesame seeds are a nutritional goldmine - high in mineral content, and containing two proteins that are not normally found in other vegetable proteins. For people with milk allergies, sesame seeds provide an alternative source of calcium.
Sesame oil (also known as gingelly oil or til oil) is derived from sesame seeds. Besides being used as a cooking oil in South India, it is often used as a flavour enhancer in Chinese, Korean, and to a lesser extent Southeast Asian cuisine.
Prior to 600 BC, the Assyrians used sesame oil as a food, salve and medication, primarily by the rich, as the difficulty of obtaining it made it expensive. Hindus use til oil in votive lamps, and consider the oil sacred. According to Hindu belief, lighting lamp filled with til oil in front of Lord Hanuman removes obstacles and difficulties in life.
Sesame Seed Oil has been used as a healing oil for thousands of years. Sesame oil is mentioned in the Vedas as excellent for humans. It is naturally antibacterial for common skin pathogens, such as staphylococcus and streptococcus as well as common skin fungi, such as athlete's foot fungus. It is naturally antiviral. It is a natural anti inflammatory agent.
It has been used extensively in India as a healing oil, including in experiments which showed it was useful in unblocking arteries. In recent experiments in Holland by Ayurvedic physicians, the oil has been used in the treatment of several chronic disease processes, including hepatitis, diabetes and migraines.
This amber coloured aromatic oil, made from pressed and toasted sesame seeds, is a popular ingredient in Chinese cooking. It is not used as a cooking oil, as the flavour is too intense and it burns quite easily, but rather as a flavour enhancer to marinades, salad dressings, or in the final stages of cooking. Recipes often call for a few drops of sesame oil to be drizzled on a dish just before serving.
Another popular sesame by product is the sesame paste or tahini, which is commonly sold in glass jars. Middle Eastern tahini is made of hulled, lightly roasted seeds. East Asian sesame paste is made of unhulled seeds.
Tahini is a major component of hummus and other Middle Eastern foods. It is sold fresh or dehydrated. Sesame paste is an ingredient in some Chinese, Korean, and Japanese dishes. As East Asian sesame paste is made from unhulled seeds, it is more bitter than tahini.
Source: Wikipedia, You Things and About.com