1,001 arabian bites: Sesame opens a lot more than just one door
“Open sesame” is the memorable secret command in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves from One Thousand and One Nights, but it wasn’t quite memorable enough for one guy. In the story, Ali Baba’s greedy brother Kasim blanks on “sesame” while trying to exit the magical cave, confusing the seed with barley and a number of other grains before resigning himself to his grim fate.
On a less morbid note, the phrase was the inspiration behind the naming of Sesame Street. As Kermit the Frog explained: “You know, like ‘Open Sesame.’ It kind of gives the idea of a street where neat stuff happens.”
A lot of neat stuff happens with sesame seeds. Sesame is the modern culinary Madonna: you don’t have to love it, but you can’t avoid it. No other seed or nut has the versatility to embellish sushi, mezze, Szechuan noodles, Italian cookies and Mexican moles without stepping out of its element, and no other ingredient lends itself more diversely to international savoury and sweet preparations where it acts as a defining ingredient.
Historically, sesame’s hardiness and stamina as a crop were a big part of its popularity in the Middle East. Drought-resistant, it thrived in the middle of summer for millennia, when nothing else would grow.
There are a lot of excellent reasons to eat sesame besides its ubiquity. Tahini (sesame paste) is an Arabic word whose root means “to grind”, as is “tahin”, our generic term for “flour”. In the United States, tahini has maintained a certain reputation since the 1960s, when home cooks embraced it in wholesome preparations that complemented a lifestyle of Birkenstocks, granola and low-carbon footprints. At some point, well into our university years of boxed cake mix, drive-through tacos and microwaveable rice, my friend Phillip came back from a fellowship on an Australian commune with PTSD, or “post-tahini stress disorder”. It was an honest side effect of his two-month tahini shake diet.
Ka’ak, Arabic for “cake”, is a blanket term for several breads, cakes and cookies found in the region. My favourites are the Lebanese and Palestinian-style sesame-coated street breads, which are soft and yeasty, or the Syrian-style varieties, which are hard and crunchy.
Sesame seeds and bread are the original – and pre-Biblical – match made in heaven. Nothing beats a burger on a sesame-seed bun or sesame-seed bagel. The superiority of a sesame-seed bun is hardly classified knowledge. Three quarters of Mexico’s annual sesame crop is bought by McDonald’s for its sesame buns that are used worldwide. Traditional Montreal bagels with sesame seeds are the best in the world, if I’m voting.
My GP in Abu Dhabi is a big fan of prescribing sesame sweets over supplements for their calcium punch and I’m a big fan of any vitamin regime that involves a mandatory dessert protocol. Many bakeries in the UAE sell sesame cookies, nubby amber discs of toasted sesame seeds moistened with just enough sugar syrup to suspend them in a no-nonsense, elbow to-elbow mass.
Grocery stores and roasteries are likely to carry a similarly simple confection in the form of crunchy, dense brittle, where the sugar is heated to a higher temperature to create a snappier and less crumbly texture. You’ll end up with some stray seeds on your shirt as you eat, but it will be the memory of sesame you can’t shake.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who lives and cooks in New Mexico
Updated: August 27, 2014 04:00 AM