Sensational Sesame in Chinese Cooking

Sesame's Delightfully Nutty Flavor Enhances Many Chinese Dishes

White and black sesame seeds
Getty Images/canacol

Sesame is one of the oldest seeds known to man. Thought to have originated in India or Africa, the first written record of sesame dates back to 3,000 BC. According to Assyrian mythology, sesame's origins go back even farther—there is a charming myth about the Gods imbibing sesame seed wine the night before they created the earth. References can be found to Babylonians using sesame oil, and to Egyptians growing their own sesame to make flour. Of course, Persia, the birthplace of the 1001 Arabian Nights​ ("Open, Sesame!"), has long been savvy to sesame's benefits. Ancient Persians relied on it both as a food and for its medicinal qualities.

When Was Sesame Oil Discovered?

Farther east, it's unclear when sesame first found its way to China. Some sources claim the Chinese were using sesame oil in their lamps as far back as 5,000 years ago, while others state sesame seeds were introduced into China about 2,000 years ago. It's probably true that the ancients first relied on the sesame plant to provide oil, and only later discovered its value as a food source. In the Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson concludes that sesame "...was probably introduced into China early in the Christian era, but the first firm evidence of it in China dates from the end of the 5th century AD."

While the exact circumstances surrounding sesame's arrival in China may be lost to history, there's no doubt that today it is a mainstay of Chinese cuisine. Toasted sesame seeds are sprinkled on salads, sesame paste is added to sauces, and delightfully aromatic sesame oil is used to flavor everything from dips to marinades.

Sesame Oil

This amber colored, aromatic oil, made from pressed and toasted sesame seeds, is a popular ingredient in Chinese cooking. It's not for use as a cooking oil, however, as the flavor is too intense and it burns quite easily. Try adding sesame oil to marinades, salad dressings, or in the final stages of cooking. Recipes often call for a few drops of sesame oil to be drizzled on a dish just before serving.

One note: the non-roasted sesame oil you sometimes find in supermarkets and health food stores is not a good substitute for the sesame oil used in Asian cooking. As with sesame paste, the difference is that Asian oil is pressed from toasted sesame seeds. The lighter oil is found in Indian cooking, while Asian countries favor the darker variety. Sesame oil will keep for several months if stored in a cool, dry place. The best brand is Kadoya sesame oil from Japan.

Besides its use in cooking, sesame oil is found in holistic preparations for everything from treating infections to stimulating brain activity. It is also believed to contain antioxidants.

Sesame Paste

It's impossible to do justice to the rich aroma and flavor of sesame paste. In color and texture, it resembles peanut butter, which is often recommended as a substitute. Toasting sesame seeds to make sesame paste is a time-honored culinary technique, giving the paste a different flavor than Mediterranean tahini, which is made from untoasted seeds.

Sesame paste is commonly sold in glass jars—there are several good Chinese brands on the market. Don't be surprised when you open the jar to find that the soybean oil used in the paste has separated and formed a layer on top, with the solid paste below. Stir the layer of oil back into the paste. Once opened, sesame paste should be stored in the refrigerator, where it will last for several months.

Dieters take note: sesame paste is rather high in calories—nearly 200 in three tablespoons. On the other hand, a recipe normally only calls for a few teaspoons at most.

Sesame Seeds

The seeds of the sesame plant (Sesamum Indicum to use its scientific name) are featured in many Asian cuisines. Spice paste concoctions made with sesame seeds enhance Indian dishes, and sesame seeds play a role in Japanese vegetarian cooking. In China, sesame seeds are used to flavor cakes, cookies, and popular desserts such as sesame seed balls and fried custard. You'll also find them in savory dishes.

Both black and white sesame seeds are used in Chinese cooking. (The third variety of beige-colored sesame seeds is not as popular). Like sesame oil, white sesame seeds have a nutty flavor, while black sesame seeds taste more bitter. However, whether a recipe calls for white or black seeds often has more to do with the appearance of a dish rather than flavor.

White sesame seeds are nearly always toasted before using. There are differing opinions on the value of toasting black sesame seeds, as it can accentuate the bitter flavor—let your taste buds make the decision. Because sesame seeds contain a high percentage of oil, it's best to store them in the refrigerator if you plan on keeping them for more than two or three months. Otherwise, they can be kept in a covered jar at room temperature. In any event, check and make sure they don't smell rancid before using.

Sesame seeds are a nutritional goldmine—high in mineral content, and containing two proteins that are not normally found in other vegetable proteins. For people with milk allergies, sesame seeds provide an alternative source of calcium.

Recipes With Varieties of Sesame