May 21, 2018

Ingredients: Sesame Seeds, Til, Tal, Tillu, Teel, Gingelly, Gingili, Gingilli, Semsem, Simsim

Sesame seeds are believed to be the world's oldest condiment, and one of the first recorded plants used for its seeds. For thousands of years, sesame seeds have been an integral part of the cuisines of northern Africa, the Middle East, and across Asia. Even today, sesame seeds are used worldwide for  nutritional, medicinal, and industrial purposes.

Archaeological findings suggest sesame was first domesticated in the Indian subcontinent around 5,500 years ago. Sesame was cultivated during the Indus valley civilization where it was the main oil crop. Sesame oil was probably exported to Mesopotamia as early as 2500 BC. The genus Sesamum has many species, most are wild and found in northern Africa. Sesamum indicum is the cultivated variety that originated in India. Sesame seeds are such a part of India's history that they are revered by Hindus as droplets of Lord Vishnu's sweat.  The domestication of sesame was favored by its ability to grow in areas that do not support the growth of other crops. It is a robust crop that needs little tending. The sesame plant will tolerate high heat and drought conditions or excessive rain and moisture. Its hardy nature allows subsistence farmers to plant it along the edge of deserts and other marginally arable areas where no other crops will grow.

Scheherazade probably saying "Open al-juljulan!" not "Open sesame!"
The etymology of the words used for sesame seeds is just as ancient and interesting as the plant.  In India, where sesame has been cultivated since the Harappan period, the words for sesame derive from the Sanskrit root tila (तिल.) Therefore you hear sesame called til in Nepali, Punjabi, Bengali, Hindi and Urdu. In Gujurati sesame is called tal and in Telegu tillu. The English word sesame is derived from the Greek sesamon which appears to be a borrowed word from ancient Akkadia. European words for sesame like ajonjolí in Spanish, gergelim in Portuguese, ġulġlien in Maltese, and the now archaic English word gingelly are derived from the Arabic al-juljulan (الجلجلان). In the American South, you will hear sesame seeds referred to as benniseed or benne seeds. This is because benne is the word for sesame seeds in the Bantu dialect of the West African slaves brought to the United States.

Flowering sesame plant
Sesame plants are actually quite beautiful. They have attractive dark-green leaves and tubular flowers similar to foxgloves that can be white or pale pink. Mature plants can grow 3 to 6 feet tall depending on the variety. The seeds are collected from the dried seed pods at the end of the growing season.

Immature sesame pods
Seeds are ready for harvest when the pods turn brown and begin to crack open slightly. The seed pods at the bottom of the plant will often be ready to harvest while the flowers toward the top of the plant are still in bloom, necessitating multiple harvests toward the end of the growing season.

Dry, ripened, & dehisced sesame pods
The sesame pod or capsule only explodes open when the seeds are completely ripe in a process called dehiscence. Dehiscence time tends to vary, so farmers cut plants by hand and place them together in an upright position to continue ripening until all the pods have opened. The dried stalks can also be used as cooking fuel. I have read that before World War I about 30% of American households used sesame oil as their primary vegetable oil for cooking. Unfortunately, the intense manual labor required to harvest sesame seeds became its downfall in most western countries. Today, the American fast-food chain McDonald buys 75% of Mexico's sesame seed crop to top it's hamburger buns.

Bundles of sesame plants cut by hand to dry, note the pods still on the dry plants.
Since sesame has such tiny, flat, and compact seeds, it is difficult to dry after harvest. The small size and shape of the seed makes the movement of air around the seed difficult. The seeds need to be harvested when as dry as possible and stored at 6% moisture or less. If the seed is too moist, fermentation and rot can begin.

Unhulled sesame seeds on the left and hulled sesame seeds on the right
After harvesting, the sesame seeds are normally cleaned and hulled. Hulling the seeds makes them less prone to going rancid and results in a less bitter flavor profile. In some countries, they are passed through an electronic sorting machine that rejects any discolored seeds to ensure perfect color. This is done because sesame seeds with consistent appearance are perceived as better quality, and sell for a higher price. Immature, discolored or off-sized seeds are removed and used for sesame oil production.

Sesame seeds occur in many colors depending on the cultivar. The most preferred variety of sesame is an off-white color. Other common colours are buff, tan, gold, brown, reddish, gray, and black. The color is the same for the hull and the fruit.

Sesamol- natural antioxidant found in sesame oil
Sesame seeds are composed of 5% water, 23% carbohydrates, 12% dietary fiber, 50% to 60% fat, and 15% to 18% protein. Whole sesame seeds are also rich in several B vitamins, vitamin K, iron, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc. Sesame oil has significant resistance against oxidation as a result of containing endogenous antioxidants including lignins and tocopherols. This combination of powerful natural antioxidants and lack of triple unsaturated fats give sesame oil a long shelf life. The byproduct or sesame seed meal that remains after oil extraction is so rich in protein (35-50%) that it can be used as feed for livestock.

Sesame & peanut chikki

Sesame seeds and oil are used extensively in India. Currently, India remains the world's second largest producer of sesame oil and seeds. Nearly every region of India has a unique sweet made of sesame seeds mixed with melted sugar. The candies are made into balls, bars, or clusters and have a delightful crunch similar to peanut brittle. Chikki is a popular treat all over India made of melted jaggery and various nuts and seeds or puffed rice as a flat bar. Sesame chikki is called til ki chikki in Hindi. In Assam, black sesame seeds are used to make ball-shaped  treats called til pitha and tilor laru during the festival of bihu. In northern and southern India sweet sesame balls called pindi in Urdu, ell urundai in Tamil, ellunda in Malayalam are eaten during the festival of Makar Sankranti and at weddings.

South Indian dry chutney called podi

In the cuisines of the southern Indian regions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala sesame oil and seeds are used extensively. A powdered chutney called podi made of ground sesame seeds, urad dal, chickpea, dry chilis is often served as a condiment with idli and dosa. After serving the podi is mixed with a little sesame oil to make a paste to be used as a dipping sauce. I've also seen sesame seeds dry roasted and ground to make gravy for curries in South India.

Traditional sweet Nepali dumpling called yomari

Nepalis use sesame seeds in a variety of savory vegetable chutneys, potato dishes, sweet laddoos, and a sweet dumpling called yomari. As with most Nepali sweets, yomari are only made and eaten for special holidays such as Purnima or Yomari Punhi. The steamed dumpling is made out of rice flour dough shaped like a fish and filled with a mixture of sesame seeds and chaku. (Chaku is jaggery or raw sugar that's been cooked down to an almost molasses-like dark caramel. ) The rich and sugary filling of yomari is quite the delicious contrast to the tender rice dough shell. I've only seen Nepalis using sesame oil for shallow or deep frying traditional sweets and samosas. They like to use sesame oil diluted in a ratio of 1:3 with a flavorless oil like sunflower seed or soy oil just like the Japanese do for frying tempura.

For culinary use, sesame oil is available in light and dark versions. The pale yellow or golden oil is pressed from raw sesame seeds resulting in a high smoke point and is thus suitable for use as a frying oil. Light sesame oil has a mild, nutty flavor. The dark amber or brown oil is pressed from sesame seeds that have been roasted and has a rich, aromatic flavor. Dark sesame oil also has a  lower smoke point and is unsuitable for deep-frying, it can be used for stir-frying of meats and vegetables or to cook omelets. East Asian cuisines often use roasted sesame oil for seasoning or as a condiment.

I just went and bought a kilo bag of sesame seeds for about $2 USD. I'm all jazzed to try my hand at making all sorts of sesame treats for Iftar this Ramadan from tahini to laddoos! How about you?

Ramadan Mubarak!

May 13, 2018

Happy Mother's Day

Wishing a happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there!

To moms who appreciate budding fashionistas...

Or future gymnasts...

And motorcycle mamas...

And tired moms...

And furry moms...

And doting moms of dollies...

Happy Mother's day to moms all around the world!

May 7, 2018

Ghurma Aloo (Cumin-Scented Potatoes)

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A ghurma is a thick-sauced, long-simmered spicy stew of Iranian origin. This recipe for Ghurma Aloo is the perfect pairing of potatoes or aloo simmered until tender with earthy cumin and a pinch of red chili for a delicious and beautiful dish. Serve over rice or with naan to scoop up the vibrant sauce.

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We don't usually eat potatoes but when the new potatoes show up at market, I make an exception. (It seems a bit redundant to serve potatoes with the rice we eat daily.) There's nothing quite like the delicate flavor and texture of fresh potatoes and this easy recipe perfectly showcases them. This dish is adapted from Raghavan Iyer's 2008 cookbook, 660 Curries: The Gateway to Indian Cooking.

Indian cuisine is heavily influenced by the cooking of ancient Persia. The traditional Persian vegetable stew called ghurma or ghormeh is still a popular dish in Iran today. Many influences of Persia can be found in this recipe. As with most Iranian dishes, this recipe eschews garlic and makes do with onion and tomato for an umami boost. The potatoes are initially fried with turmeric giving them a lovely yellow hue as is typical in Persian cuisine. A generous use of cumin and red chili powder provide the spiciness of the dish. Fresh cilantro or dhania is stirred in at the end for a bit of green brightness - yet another Persian motif.

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This recipe has become our favorite way to enjoy the fresh potatoes of the season! Cumin and potatoes are THE perfect pairing in my opinion. I have adapted this recipe ever so slightly to suit my Kashmiri family's taste. Mr. Iyer recommended soaking the potatoes- I did not find this necessary. The original recipe called for two teaspoons of salt- I'd start with one teaspoon as we found two teaspoons to be a bit much. Mr. Iyer stirs the tomato in last with the cilantro with this recipe. This results in a raw tomato flavor that my Kashmiri clan cannot abide. So I put the tomato in with the water and chili powder to let them cook with the potatoes eliminating any hint of raw tomato. I also used Kashmiri mirch instead of cayenne powder for its brilliant red color, rich chili flavor, and slightly less heat. The color the Kashmiri mirch lends to this dish really makes this one of the most beautiful ways to serve potatoes. I hope you'll try this easy to make and tasty recipe and love it as much as we do!

4-5 large russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and roughly cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2-3 TBS cooking oil (enough to cover the bottom of the pan)
1 to 2 tsp salt
1 TBS cumin/jeera seeds
1 onion, cut in half lengthwise and then cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tsp turmeric/haldi
1 tsp Kashmiri mirch (or cayenne/degi mirch for more heat or paprika for less heat)
1 medium-size tomato, cut into 1/2-inch cubes or pureed
2 TBS finely chopped fresh cilantro/dhania

Here's what to do:
1) Heat cooking oil with 1 teaspoon salt in a medium-size deep skillet or kadhai for 5 minutes. Add the cumin seeds and cook for about 5 seconds. Add potatoes, onion, and turmeric. Stir-fry until the potatoes and onion are lightly browned around the edges or about 6-7 minutes.

2)  Pour in 2 cups water, chopped tomato, and Kashmiri mirch (or chili powder) and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium and cover the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally until the potatoes are almost fall-apart tender. This usually takes about 20 to 25 minutes. (If liquid gets too low or mixture begins to stick or scorch- reduce heat and add 1/2 cup of water.)

3) When potatoes are cooked to desired tenderness stir in cilantro/dhania and cover pan. Allow dish to stand for about 2 minutes. Salt to taste and serve. For a thicker sauce, coarsely mash some of the potato cubes with the back of a large spoon.

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