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Sesame seed makes a grand appearance in January in most parts of India, around the time of Makar Sankranti. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Sesame seed makes a grand appearance in January in most parts of India, around the time of Makar Sankranti. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Core ingredient: Sesame, the superfood

In Asian countries, sesame seeds find place of pride in most cuisines

Tilgul ghya, goad, goad bola (eat til gul and talk sweet) is how people in Maharashtra greet each with sesame seed (til) laddoos on the eve of Sankranti. Sesame seed makes a grand appearance in January in most parts of India, around the time of Makar Sankranti, as the sun moves into the zodiac of Capricorn. Up north and in the west, it assumes the forms of laddoo, chikki, revdi and gajak. In Punjab, they also go by the name of til pinni. Til pitha and tilor laru are prepared in Assam for Bihu celebrated around the same time.

Sesame seeds could be acquired taste for some. I, however, have liked sesame seeds since my childhood. Sesame seed laddoos, or Ellu-Urundai as they are called in Tamil, would be made as a part of the meals prepared on Thevasam days, to remember the ancestors on their death anniversary. Since I loved them so much, and they would be made only sparingly, I remember asking my grandmother why such days come only once a year, much to her anguish.

However, the love for sesame seeds did not translate into a love for the dark coloured, strongly flavoured gingelly oil (extracted from sesame seeds), which is a staple in most Tambrahm households. It is called Nallennai in Tamil, which means “good oil". I have heard stories from my great-grandmother on how the oil used to be extracted from sesame seeds in one of the dark backrooms of her huge maternal house. This oil is predominantly used at home to make dosas, and poured raw on top of idlis and to mix Molagapodi “gun powder"—in its raw state, it has an even more pronounced aroma and flavour, not unlike the strong mustard oil used in the northern and eastern states. I would specifically ask my mother not to add any gingelly oil on my idlis and dosas.

Cut to present times, I love to liberally douse my breakfast idlis with cold-pressed gingelly oil, sprinkle Molagapodi and bask in the aromas of the said oil that I hated as a child. It does help that cold-pressed gingelly oil comes with many health benefits.

Sesamum indicum, which is the scientific name, has been a domesticated crop for the last 3,000 years. The seeds are one of the highest yielding oilseeds (some varieties giving up to 50% oil) and it is a crop capable of growing even in drought conditions. Sesame seeds are available in three varieties—black, unpolished (which is light brown) and polished (which is nearly white, also called nylon til). Ayurveda considers them as a means to energy and longevity. Chinese herbalists have used black sesame seeds for ages now for treatment of ringing ears, blurred vision, numbness, dizziness, etc.

The book All You Wanted to Know about Diet and Health Through Ayurveda (Vaidya Suresh Chaturvedi) says that sesame oil has the best medicinal value and its use in diet is great for rheumatoid arthritis and other “vata" disorders. The seeds give strength, improve lactation and strengthen the roots of hair. As per the book Chemistry of Phytopotentials: Health, Energy and Environmental Perspectives (L.D. Khemani, M.M. Srivastava and Shalini Srivastava), sesame oil is rich in vitamins K and E. It also is rich in highly beneficial Omega-3, almost 40mg in one tablespoon of oil. A rich mix of minerals such as copper, magnesium and calcium makes it good for the blood vessels, bones and joints. It also helps in preventing osteoporosis, migraines, colon cancer and even premenstrual syndrome. The seeds have an antioxidant called sesame lignin that fights free radicals causing aging and cancer.

All nuts and seeds are high in calories, but it is useful to look at the quality of the food rather than the caloric value, and sesame seeds being quite the superfood, it is highly recommended that you make it a part of the daily diet in one way or the other.

In northern Karnataka, black sesame seeds are mixed with chilies and onion or garlic to make a chutney. Peanuts and cumin seeds can also be roasted along with sesame seeds and chilies to make an all purpose chutney, to go with rice, rotis or any snacks.

Tilkut is an ayurvedic recipe where equal portions of roasted powdered sesame seeds and powdered raw cane sugar are mixed together—this is said to balance all three doshas.

In Asian countries, sesame seeds find a place of pride in most cuisines. The Japanese make a sesame salt called Gomashio that adds big flavour to food. The black sesame seed ice cream that I had in Hong Kong had an unforgettable taste from the slightly bitter notes and the texture of the ground seeds.

Closer to home, the Nepalis make a delicious til aloo, where the toasty flavours of sesame seeds are a good foil for locally grown potatoes. Tahini (sesame seed paste) is one of the Middle East’s best food gifts to the world; a dollop of tahini added to your hummus will make it taste most authentic. Halvah, a sesame seed fudge made with sugar syrup, is also very popular in the Middle East.

But don’t restrict yourself to these known recipes—add a small handful of toasted seeds over any salad, add it to any of your regular chutneys, bakes such as muffins and breads, vegetable curries and granola bars or just as a topping on your morning cereal to experience the health benefits along with a flavour boost.

The Healing Cuisine of China: 300 Recipes for Vibrant Health and Longevity (Zhuo Zhao and George Ellis) lists the recipe for a black sesame tea. In China, black sesame seeds are considered excellent for dark shiny hair.

Try this recipe:

Dry roast one teaspoon black sesame seeds for three minutes on a low flame. Let it cool. Grind it and mix with a half teaspoon of green tea leaves. Place this in a cup. Bring one cup of water to a boil and pour over the mix in the cup. Cover and brew for five minutes. It’s ready to drink.

A suggestion on buying and storing—as these are oilseeds, ensure that the packaging date is recent. Keep them in the fridge in a sealed pack so they don’t turn rancid.

A doctor turned nutritional consultant, culinary trainer, food writer and columnist, who’s learning to grow the foods she likes to eat, Nandita Iyer lives in Bangalore and is mom to a five-year-old gourmand son.

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