Til (pronounced as th-ill) seeds are tiny, cream-colored and shaped like teardrops. They have a mild nutty flavor which is further enhanced when the seeds are roasted. Til seeds have a unique and distinctive smell when used in cooking—when the seeds are fried, or sesame oil is used in a dish.
Til is mostly sold in seed form since it is rarely if ever, used as a powder in Indian cooking. Til or Sesame oil was prevalent before the advent of peanut oil in India. If you ever require the powdered form, it is advisable to buy the seeds and grind them at home as needed. When buying til, look for plump seeds that do not leave an oily residue on your fingers if handled. 'Fresh' good quality til seeds must not smell greasy or rancid.
Til is not only used as part of spice mixes, but it is also a stand-alone ingredient in many dishes—savory and sweet. Til oil is a preferred cooking medium in some Indian states. Til is also used in Tadka or Tempering—a cooking method in which cooking oil is heated till scorching and whole spices are added to it and fried. This oil and spice mix is then added as a final touch or garnish to the dish. According to Ayurveda, til is thought to be a heat-producing food. Foods made from or containing til are therefore recommended to be eaten during cold months.
Til has great religious significance in India and is often used in poojas (prayer ceremonies). Foods made from til are given to new mothers and thought to promote post-childbirth healing and increase milk supply. As til is believed to be a heat-producing ingredient, its use is recommended during colder weather.