By Scott Mechura EBS FOOD COLUMNIST
If I asked you to think of foods you thought were universal, the ones that span cultures across all continents, many of you would come up with similar ingredients. My guess is some of these items might include garlic, onions, tomatoes and peppers and of course, common proteins such as eggs, beef, pork and fish.
Think about the last time you and your group of friends were deciding between Italian, Tex-Mex, Chinese, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern or even Peruvian. The odds are high, no matter what you decide, that many if not all of the aforementioned ingredients were on the menu.
There’s one ingredient that probably slipped under your radar. It is a bit more unique and doesn’t always strike us as being truly global.
I’m talking about sesame — most commonly, sesame seeds.
Discovered about 5,500 years ago and cultivated for 3,000 years, sesame is one of the oldest oilseed crops in the world.
Sesame originated in Sub-Saharan Africa, and archeologists have evidence of its first domestication on the Indian subcontinent.
Farmers call it the “survivor crop” for its ability to grow in conditions that would not sustain most other plants and crops. For instance, it can grow in high wind, low moisture areas and even during drought, then when rains and excessive moisture come, it’s one the very few crops to survive these contradicting conditions. Sesame’s ideal growing condition, though, is well-drained, fertile soil with a neutral ph.
Sesame seeds do not dry well in either natural or processing conditions. Their small, flat shape and size mean they rest and store compactly, thus limiting airflow for processed drying. This is why it’s important to pick them from the already harvested plant when that plant is as dry as possible.
Sesame seeds are in dishes on almost every continent. As a general rule, black sesame seeds are more common in Far East cooking, while the white seem to be utilized more in the Americas and Middle Eastern preparations.
Japan and China are the world’s first and second largest importers, respectively. And their use is overwhelmingly oil, rather than the seeds themselves. In Mexico, you will find them in many mole sauce recipes. Mole dishes vary depending on the region, but you’ll find sesame seeds in most of them.
Though China and Japan utilize the oil far more extensively, the seeds and pastes are found in numerous dishes, sushi rolls being an obvious use in Japan. In China, the seeds and paste are in many cake preparations that date back well over 150 years.
Tahini, a condiment made from toasted sesame seeds, has become popular throughout Europe and America, but finds its roots in Eastern Mediterranean countries, such as Iran and Turkey as well as North Africa, specifically Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.
In America these seeds are as commonplace as the topping on hamburger buns.
However, we also use it here in many other applications. Grinding the black seeds into a paste with oil adds a dramatic color to a plate and has a great toasty nutty flavor, and we use both black and white seeds to crust chicken or fish.
Go to a grocery store deli counter full of salads and see how many of them have sesame seeds in them.
And the next time you are deciding where to have lunch or dinner, maybe the next time you travel to a big city, odds are you’ll come across the versatile sesame seeds in your dish.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.