This essay by Tienlon Ho is excerpted from You and I Eat the Same by Chris Ying (Artisan Books Copyright © 2018).
Book editor Chris Ying discusses both the connective and oppressive power of global foods with Francis Lam in this interview.
"One Seed Rules Them All"
By Tienlon Ho
The sesame seed is a foundation of civilization, one of humanity’s oldest cultivated crops, but when I was growing up in the Corn Belt of the United States, it was primarily known as “those white things on burger buns.”
In those pale, teardrop-shaped flecks, it was hard to detect the nutty flavor that I found in the toasted oil my mother drizzled into the dough for her cong you bing, scallion pancakes. They tasted only vaguely like the black seeds from the Persian market, which we toasted and ground, then sipped as zhi ma hu, sesame porridge, or rolled into the sweet centers of tang yuan, soft rice-flour dumplings. We used zhi ma jiang, an umber paste of ground sesame, to flavor sauces for everything from noodles to hot pot. Only later, once I began eating falafel slathered in garlicky tahini sauce on late nights in college, did I draw the connection from tahini to zhi ma to the idle garnish on the burgers of my youth.
Sesame is everywhere. It has come to represent a great deal to a great many different cooks around the world. But in spite of all its many variations in appearance, flavor, and application, the sesame in all the world’s oils, pastes, and bread toppings is one and the same species: Sesamum indicum, first cultivated in the Indus Valley at Harappa (current-day Pakistan) some four thousand years ago.
Wild sesame began as a small, black seed, likely in Africa, but it changed in size and color as it moved around the world. It prefers tropical heat and sun but can adapt to grow in cooler climes, even in thin soil, so long as there is occasional rain. Through human intervention, sesame was bred into either spindly plants with small, waxy leaves or squat plants with full leaves, each producing seeds that appeal to varied tastes.
The flavor of cultivated sesame seeds ranges from somewhat milky and floral for lighter varieties to earthier, more complex, and smokier in darker ones. The seed coat, or hull, is what makes sesame black, white, or shades of brown, red, and gold. White varieties fetch the highest price on today’s market because they are thought to be the oiliest and have the most complex flavor. But in Sudan, red seeds are thought to be the richest, and in Japan, black are preferred for their deep flavor. So far, scientists have cataloged and stored more than twenty-five thousand varieties of sesame from India and China—each with its own drought tolerance, pest resistance, nutritional content, color, size, and flavor. In ancient India, sesame was a talisman, a food of longevity. It was scattered beneath the beds of the sick and offered to Hindu gods and deceased ancestors. Sesame is about half fat and one-fifth protein, and loaded with calcium, iron, and other vital minerals. It is so nourishing that Buddha himself was said to have survived on rice porridge skimmings topped with a dash of sesame oil each day. As he approached enlightenment, his daily diet narrowed to a single precious sesame seed.
Humans have historically consumed sesame mostly in the form of oil. When pressed from untoasted seeds, the pale gold oil has a high smoke point and neutral flavor. Toasted sesame produces oil that is dark amber and robust, and is used most commonly as a dressing rather than a cooking agent. An insult still used in parts of India today is jartila, or “wild sesame,” so coined because wild seeds give little oil. A jartila is a good-for-nothing.
Thousands of years ago, sesame traveled west from India to Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and east to China and the rest of Asia, because it is both nourishing and portable. It does not turn rancid crossing great deserts. Its only downside comes at harvest. Once ripe, sesame pods snap open with a pop, scattering the treasure within (a feature said to be the inspiration for Ali Baba’s magic incantation, “Open, sesame!”). To capture the tiny seeds, the stalks must be pulled while the pods are still green, dried in bundles, then shaken or hit with sticks before the chaff is winnowed away. Nearly all sesame comes from India, Sudan, China, Myanmar, and Nigeria, where it is still harvested as it has been since the beginning—by hand, by the poor and often subjugated.
Sesame crossed the Atlantic to the Americas in the early seventeenth century with enslaved West Africans, who knew the seed as benne. They soaked the seeds to release their oil, then ground them into mash for stews and paste for bread. Benne flourished in slaves’ gardens from the Carolinas down to Jamaica, but it would be another three centuries before it took widespread hold in North America. The breeding of a sesame variety that could be harvested mechanically by combine and a patent for hulling seeds with chemical solvents finally gave sesame mass commercial appeal. McDonald’s Big Mac and its spongy, sesame-speckled bun arrived in the United States in 1967.
Like people, with enough time, food that was once foreign can eventually become so entrenched in a culture that it endows that culture with a new heritage. A dish can feel of one place, while being from another. Sesame-seed buns, for instance, have deep roots outside of the United States. In the Levant, on the western edge of ancient Mesopotamia, people ate sesame-adorned breads long before the region was carved into nations. One form, known as ka’ak, is typically leavened with fermented chickpeas, shaped into rings, and baked. They are made savory in Israel but glazed with milk and sugar in Lebanon. Iraqis favor a version with raisins. In Greece and Turkey, it is made flatter and known as koulouri or simit, the latter of which is sometimes sweetened with grape molasses. Arab vendors arrived in China’s cities around 600 CE, hawking sesame-topped breads like these and manakish, another flatbread topped with za’atar, a spice blend containing sesame seeds. The Hui minority carry on the tradition in China with shao bing—rounds of flaky, layered bread heavily adorned with sesame and often stuffed with savory fillings. Like its makers, these breads are all related, and yet each has its particularities.
There are likewise countless plays on sesame as a seasoning. Throughout the Middle East, white sesame seeds are blended with sumac, thyme, marjoram, salt, and other spices particular to whoever is making the za’atar. In Japan, sesame features in gomashio (sesame and salt), furikake (dried fish and seaweed), and shichimi togarashi (black and white sesame with chili, numbing sansho pepper, orange peel, ginger, and seaweed). Sierra Leone’s version of sesame seasoning is ogiri-saro, which is made by fermenting seeds left over from making oil. The resulting paste is smoked, wrapped in Christmas bush or banana leaves, then smoked again until soft and pungent, and used to enliven stews. Indonesia’s cabuk is a sauce of seeds cured in rice-straw ash and blended with salt, garlic, and chili.
Sesame confections also span the globe. Halva, an airy blend of kneaded sesame and syrup, has many forms, but is often mixed with the local flavors of the region—from pistachios in Istanbul to orange in Thessaloniki. Halva traveled from the Balkans and the Middle East with Jewish immigrants, who made it popular in Poland and Romania in the nineteenth century and trendy in Brooklyn today. As Syrian immigrants found their way to places as far-flung as Rio de Janeiro, specialties like halva with Brazil nuts appeared.
Sesame paste is known as tahini in Israel, rashi in Iraq, ardeh in Iran, tahin in Turkey, and tashi on Cyprus, and it is all made more or less the same way: the kernels of sesame seeds are separated from their hulls, then roasted and ground. A smooth and creamy texture is favored in the Middle East, while a thicker grain is preferred around the Mediterranean. Tahini can be simply seasoned with lemon juice and eaten with bread, or spread on meat and fish. It is used to balance out fatty proteins or add heft to potatoes or greens. Lamb siniyah, a Palestinian dish, involves using tahini as a crust for roasting, creating a flavorful, edible exterior around superbly succulent meat.
On good days, our shared taste for sesame can erase political boundaries. Some of the best tahini in the world is made in the outskirts of Nablus, the second-largest city in the West Bank, where the oldest Palestinian-run tahini factories import sesame seeds from Ethiopia and mill them between basalt grinding stones from Syria. Tahini is so vital to Israelis that rabbis monitor the factories by remote camera to certify the production methods as kosher, since they cannot enter parts of the city by law. Some West Bank producers even enjoy special entry permits and open access to Ben Gurion Airport. To make tahini, after all, water and oil must be mixed until they come together to form a cohesive blend.
On the other hand, sesame can be a lightning rod for lawsuits and flame wars over who has the right to claim ownership over certain foods. Cooks in nearly every country in the Middle East, from Jordan to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel, steadfastly assert ownership over hummus. Israelis and Lebanese in particular have grappled over the dish, which is, in its simplest form, chickpeas blended with tahini. The fighting has ranged from arguments over food labels describing hummus as a “traditional Israeli snack” to a duel over the Guinness World Record for the largest hummus plate. There have been consumer boycotts, a copyright infringement suit, and an EU petition.
In 2014, the dip company Sabra, which is co-owned by the Israeli Strauss conglomerate and PepsiCo, petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration to define hummus as a spread made with chickpeas and at least 5 percent tahini. In its petition, Sabra cited recipes published in Cairo in the thirteenth century, the etymology of the word hummus (it is short for hummus bi tahini, or “chickpeas with sesame paste” in Arabic), and cited Fat-Free Roasted Red Pepper hummus as a travesty in Exhibit B. It was a move to edge out the competition for the growing hummus market in the United States ($1 billion in annual sales and counting), but it was also an attempt to define the right way—and the right people—to make hummus. The FDA has yet to rule on the petition.
But sesame has existed for longer than modern political divides and ancient kingdoms. It serves as a symbol of cultural identity because it is such a vital ingredient to so many cuisines, but the truth is that it grew into its distinctive forms because of the diversity of the people who have nurtured it, and it has endured in recipes because of the strength of the people who cook with it.
Like people, sesame will adapt wherever it takes root. It will grow and change until it becomes a part of its new home. Some varieties grow faster so they can survive dry climates, while others ripen slowly so they can withstand storms. Some seeds grow bitter and more nourishing, and others turn light and sweet. They may look different, but when you peel the skin away, underneath, they’re all the same seed.
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