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Sesame scales the length and breadth of India’s culinary landscape—it finds a place in the chutneys of Andhra Pradesh, til rewadi of Punjab, theplas of Gujarat and til pithas of Assam. In K.T. Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion, considered mandatory reading for those keen to know the origins of Indian cuisine, sesame seeds were traced to the Harappan civilization, dating back to at least 2000 BC. It was and is widely eaten in most parts of Asia and the Middle East. Til laddoos are almost a blind spot, but chefs are now using sesame to create contemporary dishes.

La Folie’s sesame jaggery praline, sesame cake, gold chocolate cheesecake with dark chocolate spiced orange caramel.
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La Folie’s sesame jaggery praline, sesame cake, gold chocolate cheesecake with dark chocolate spiced orange caramel.

Chef and baker Sanjana Patel of La Folie, Mumbai, has been experimenting with sesame flour as a gluten-free alternative for her desserts. She holds regular cooking and baking lessons for her brand’s workshop arm, called The Classroom by La Folie. In January, they had a workshop dedicated to international desserts with Indian ingredients and sesame was the highlight. Patel introduced a French-inspired dessert with sesame jaggery praline, sesame cake, gold chocolate cheesecake with dark chocolate spiced orange caramel.

While she has been working with seeds such as chia, pumpkin and flax, she wanted to bring something new to the workshop. Sesame is rich in nutrients, has a nutty flavour and is versatile. As bakers consistently look for healthier substitutes, it was her go-to choice. She also makes sesame butter and believes it’s perfect for those on a keto diet. Sesame paired with dark chocolate is a dessert lover’s guilt-free indulgence come true.

Quick sesame recipies
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Quick sesame recipies

In restaurants that serve dishes from South-East Asia, Japan and China, sesame seeds play the role of coriander—that of an essential garnish. “You know who are the biggest innovators of sesame seeds in cooking? The Chinese and Japanese," says Hemant Oberoi, owner of the eponymous premium dining restaurant in Mumbai. When Lounge met Oberoi in mid-January, he was conceptualizing a dessert based on the popular Chinese darsan, fried honey noodles with a generous sprinkling of sesame, served with vanilla ice cream. Oberoi’s dessert will be stacked, with a baked base of prune or date pancakes shaped like money bag dumplings. Instead of the flat noodles, he uses a thinner variety like the Italian tagliatelle, which would be fried and placed on top with honey, caramel and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. Oberoi envisioned his dessert like a delicate bird’s nest.

The nutty flavour of sesame acquires a mild smoky kick on toasting. It is an uncomplicated ingredient known for its easy availability. It adds to a dish rather than overpowering it, so chefs incorporate it in their cooking to add depth to taste and texture.

“I use sesame in varied ways—to crust seafood and meats, to add flavour, lustre and volume to sauces, to cook with and season with the oil," says Viraf Patel, executive chef at Olive Bar & Kitchen. One can experience the many uses of sesame in Olive’s red velvet chicken served with sesame mayonnaise. For home chefs looking to incorporate sesame into their cooking, Patel recommends turning the seeds into a paste for dressing warm salads of beans and potatoes; its oil can be used for a good broth or soup, and as a dressing for salads.

Indian Accent’s lotus stem with sesame salt
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Indian Accent’s lotus stem with sesame salt

At Delhi’s Indian Accent, chef Manish Mehrotra has devised ingenious ways to use sesame by infusing it with sea salt. He sprinkles it on salads, crispy lotus stem and even raita. “It offers a hint of sesame packed with flavour and nutrition," he says. He has crafted a salan with sesame seeds, onion, peanut, garlic and coconut served with stir-fried vegetables. Varq at the Taj Mahal hotel in Delhi also offers contemporary renditions of traditional Indian dishes with sesame as an essential ingredient. The spice mix of their Kerala duck roast is imbued with sesame seeds. They also do an intriguing amuse-bouche with pulled jackfruit flavoured with sesame.

The Gateway Hotel in Bengaluru has a breakfast segment with low glycemic index items. Mildly roasted sesame served with flaxseed and dry fruits is an integral part of this breakfast offering. Naren Thimmaiah, executive chef of the hotel, not only serves sesame-infused dishes to his guests, but uses it at home too. He is from Coorg and the seed is integral to their diet, from chutneys to meat curries. A traditional Coorg breakfast of akki roti (rice roti) paired with ellu pajji (sesame chutney) is served as a made-to-order dish at their famed in-house restaurant, Karavalli.

Chefs say that as Indians, our taste buds are more familiar with sesame than, say, chia or flaxseed. It ticks the three primary boxes of an ingredient—taste, versatility and palate preference—and the high nutrient content is an added bonus. It is decidedly lower in price than chia or pumpkin seeds. So, be it sesame flour or salt, 2020 might witness multiple expressions of sesame.

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