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While traveling through southern India, doing food history research (this is where most of the world’s great spices originated) and learning more about Indian cooking, I kept meeting chefs who would tell me how they added flavor to dishes by using gingelly oil. They tried to describe to me what it was, how it was pressed from a particular type of seed that was hard to describe, but was very small. When I asked what the English word was for it, they replied that gingelly was the English word.
I thought I’d never find out what gingelly was (and, therefore, how or if I could get it at home), but then in Goa I found a wonderfully quirky book called the Home Encyclopedia, which not only shares every secret the diligent Indian housewife should know in order to cook, clean, raise farm animals, and patch the roof properly, but also has a section that translates a long list of common Indian ingredients into English and a dozen different Indian dialects, and then gives the Latin botanical name. It did show gingelly as the English name for the ingredient I sought, but the Latin name gave me what I needed: Sesamum indicum—sesame. I later learned that gingelly was actually the Anglicized version of the Indian word gingili, which is why it was thought of as an English word.
Sesame was one of the first oil-yielding plants to be cultivated. The indicum in the name suggests that sesame originated in India, but it was actually introduced—though long ages ago. It more than likely arose in Africa, where it has grown since early times in Egypt and Ethiopia, as well as lands farther south and west. Even now, all but one wild species are found in Africa, where the seeds are eaten like grain.
From Egypt, sesame seems to have spread into the Indus Valley. Evidence from the great Indus cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (at their peaks between 2300 BC and 1500 BC) shows that the locals cooked their meat in sesame oil. From the Indus, sesame quickly spread to India.
Herodotus and Strabo, 5th and 1st centuries BC respectively, recorded that sesame was raised in Babylonia, reports corroborated by the household accounts of Nebuchadnezzar (6th century BC). And while sesame was often grown for oil, the practice of sprinkling sesame seeds on bread was well enough established in Sicily by the 1st century AD to warrant noting by commentators of the day.
In time, though possibly not until years had ADs added to them, the seeds spread into China, Japan, Korea, and beyond. The seeds were prized for the fragrance of their oil—and in fact the Chinese name for sesame means “fragrant oil.”
Sesame is now grown in tropical and subtropical regions around the world. But while we in the West sprinkle the seeds on hamburger buns, we most commonly encounter sesame seeds and oil in non-Western cuisines. In southern India, sesame oil is still the cooking oil of choice, and throughout India, sesame seeds are sprinkled on breads and pastries and incorporated into pilafs, sauces, and stuffings. In China, in addition to using the oil for both cooking and as a seasoning, the seeds are used to encrust wonderful fried pastry balls or to produce confections. It’s almost impossible to find a Korean dish not flavored with sesame seeds or oil. Sesame seeds are an indispensable element in Egyptian and Middle Eastern Cooking, from tahini (ground sesame paste) to halva (sesame candy), and a presence in many other dishes and most pastries. And in Japan, sesame seeds appear in delicacies from gomashio (ground, salted, toasted sesame seeds used as seasoning) to goma-dofu (tofu made from sesame seeds, rather than soy).
The oil in sesame is unsaturated, plus the nuts are high in a lignan called sesamin that blocks the absorption of cholesterol and even reduces the amount of cholesterol the liver produces. The seeds are high in calcium, protein, and vitamins A and E. Nice to know, since they’re so yummy.
The Egyptian heritage of the seed is seen in the name: sesame is one of the few words that comes to English from ancient Egyptian: sesemt, A different African heritage is seen in the name used for this seed in the southern United States. Benne (or benni) is the West African name for sesame. The seeds were introduced into the U.S by West African slaves, who planted them around their quarters for good luck. Benne wafers are closely associated with the type of Southern cooking often called Low Country style, which is centered in Charleston, South Carolina. As with most traditional recipes with long histories, there are myriad variations of benne wafers, including both sweet and savory versions. The recipe below produces savory benne wafers, which are very popular at Southern cocktail parties. If you like the taste of sesame, you’ll be in heaven. Enjoy.
1/2 cup sesame seeds, toasted (see below)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 or 3 dashes of cayenne pepper
1/4 cup butter
4 Tbs. milk
1 large egg, slightly beaten
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and cayenne. Add butter a tablespoon at a time and cut into dry ingredients with a pastry cutter until the mixture resembles fine cornmeal. Add the milk a little at a time, then stir until the dough comes together. Stir in the sesame seeds.
On a lightly floured surface, gently knead the dough until it is no longer sticky. Roll out the dough until it is not much thicker than the sesame seeds. Cut into 2-inch rounds and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, brush each wafer with the beaten egg.
Bake until golden brown, about 13 to 15 minutes. Allow to cool and store in an airtight container. Makes about 3 dozen.
Note: If I’m in a hurry, instead of cutting out 2-inch rounds, which requires rerolling the trimmings, I’ll just grab a knife and cut the dough into squares, rectangles, or triangles.
To toast sesame seeds: Put sesame seeds in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Stir almost constantly until they begin to turn golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Cool before using in the recipe.