An unassuming but flavoursome little seed, and an integral component of Lohri
The sesame seed, taken from the Sesamum or ‘benne’ genus of flowering plant, is the oldest known oilseed crop. While grown all over the world, its largest producers are Tanzania, Sudan—and India, where it is revered not just as a garnish, but as a key ingredient. “Particularly at this time of year,” says regular demo chef Roopa Gulati. “Lohri, a harvest festival that represents the depths of winter, takes place on 13th January each year in north India—and whenever I think of Lohri, I think of sesame seeds.”
In Hindu tradition, the sesame seed is believed to produce heat in the body. “Whether it does or not I don’t know!” says Roopa. “But because of that, at this time of year a lot of sweets are made with them as a way of warming us up and giving us energy.” Visit the markets of Old Delhi and you’ll find stacks of ‘chikki’ or ‘layyiya patti’: “They are made from melted jaggery and encrusted with toasted white sesame seeds. They’re a bit like peanut brittle. People buy them in bulk so that whenever someone comes to visit, they’re given a nice glass of masala chai and a disc of chikki to break into.”
Sesame seeds are not solely the reserve of Lohri sweets, mind you. “What’s so interesting about sesame seed is, while it has a mild flavour, once roasted it becomes quite sweet,” she continues. “You’ll find it used in all kinds of things. You can use it pounded into chutneys, or there’s a very nice potato recipe I like to do which sees them stir-fried with sesame seeds and ginger. The toasted sesame seeds really give it character, it’s lovely.”
Rich in flavour
In the West, says Roopa, we often use black sesame seeds, “whereas in India we use white”—the latter being simply husked versions of the former. “Because they’ve got the shell on, many people believe black seeds are richer in flavour,” says James at Spice Mountain. “I can get behind that, but to be honest for me it’s more of an aesthetic thing—you’ll only really notice it on something delicate, like mild-flavoured fish.”
Both black and white sesame seeds are available at Spice Mountain, (“they come raw, but you can lightly toast them in a frying pan to add some intensity and depth”) as well as more unusual variations “like gomashio, the Japanese salt”—a blend of toasted sesame seeds and salt, used as a common table condiment in Japan. “We also have sesame seeds that have been marinated in ume plum sauce, then dried,” James adds, which lends them a brilliant scarlet hue. “They’re a fantastic garnish. Not only do they look nice, but they have a tangy, sour pop. You could sprinkle them on a Mediterranean salad, or use them to pep up boiled rice or plain fish to give it nuance.
“Sesame has a nutty flavour that adds to, never overpowers, a dish,” continues James. “They’re a quick, simple and attractive way of giving a dish a little extra something.”