One of my favourite flavours, since I was child, is of toasted sesame seeds. I may have acquired a taste for it from my mom’s molagapodi, in which sesame seeds are a key ingredient, although I also have memories of dosas fried in sesame oil which were simply unbelievable. So it surprises me that it took me really long, once I started cooking as an adult, to really understand and unlock the flavours of sesame seeds. I put it down to the surfeit of food literature and media that, until a decade ago, would extol the virtues and flavours of non-Asian ingredients – extra virgin olive oil comes to mind – while entirely overlooking the flavours found in our pantries here.
Why don’t we use more sesame and sesame oil in our cooking? As I learnt from KT Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion, sesame seeds have been used in Indian cooking for a very very long time, with evidence of their use being found in Harappan sites. Archaeologists believe that the cultivated variety originated in the Indian subcontinent over 5,000 years ago. It is a hardy crop that is drought-tolerant and the oil it yields, besides being flavourful and, according to nutritionists, very healthy, is also very stable. This means that it doesn’t go rancid very easily and is an excellent preservative, which is why it’s widely used in South India for pickling purposes. So I ask again: why don’t we use more sesame and sesame oil in our cooking?
Pretty much all of Asia has found great use for these ancient seeds; in West Asia, for example, they’re used to make tahini, a sesame paste that is a staple in many countries in the region (besides North Africa and the Mediterranean region). But, as far as I know, the best use of sesame is in Chinese, Japanese and Korean cooking. In fact, one of my most vivid memories of Shanghai, where I spent a year over a decade ago, is the smell of toasted sesame. Many of the city’s favourite on-the-move breakfast items, like baozi (steamed pork buns) and ci fan (breakfast rolls made of sticky rice), rely on sesame seeds and oil for flavour, and it is this aroma that would hit me every morning when I entered the metro which was full of people having their first bite of the day as they headed to work or school.
I suppose that is why, when I recently had a craving for Chinese flavours, I thought of making Chinese-style sesame sauce. This sauce combines the smokiness of toasted sesame seeds with umami-rich soy sauce, vinegar, red chilli flakes, garlic and a little bit of sugar. Since I had some teriyaki sauce, I added a splash of it to enhance the smoky-sweetness of my sauce. Yes, I know teriyaki is Japanese, but I’m not a purist about these things and I stake no claim on authenticity (which is an overrated concept, in my opinion).
Besides being delicious, this sauce is very quick to make. Its real advantage, though, is how versatile it is. I made enough to fill a 200 gm glass jar and I used almost half of it to coat some noodles, which I then sprinkled with chopped scallions and ate as part of a deeply satisfying dinner. Then a few days later, I used a couple of spoonfuls of the sauce to prepare a salad dressing that actually made me enjoy the salad itself (a rare occurrence deserving of celebration). This sauce can also be used as an excellent dipping sauce and as a spread.
Versatile Chinese-style Sesame Sauce
Ingredients (indicative quantities):
1 cup – Toasted sesame seeds (I used white seeds, but you can use black seeds as well)
2 tbsp – Soy sauce
1 tbsp – Rice vinegar (can be replaced with white vinegar)
2 tsp – Brown sugar (can be replaced with white sugar)
1 tsp – Red chilli flakes’
2-3 – Garlic pods
Sesame oil, as required (dark sesame oil is preferable, although the lighter variety will also do)
Salt, as required
A splash of teriyaki sauce (optional)
The quantities for the ingredients listed above are purely indicative since, ideally, you should be tasting as you go and adding a bit of this and a dash of that, depending on how you like it.
*Begin with a cup of toasted sesame seeds in the chutney jar of your mixer grinder, add a couple of pods of garlic, some of the red chilli flakes and sesame oil. Blitz these together to form a paste.
*Then slowly drizzle in some soy sauce and pulse a couple of time, and then add some of the vinegar and teriyaki sauce (if using).
*Keep adjusting the ingredients as you go, until you get the balance of smoky-sweet-salty-sour-umami that you like.
*Right at the end, add sugar and salt (very carefully, since most soy sauces in the market are already heavily salted).
Don’t add any water at all when you’re making the sauce. Ideally, it should come out as a thick paste and, if you feel the need to make it a little runnier, separate the quantity that you think you’re going to use and dilute it with a little bit of noodle water or stock.
This sauce will keep in the fridge for upto a fortnight.
[The Back Burner is a biweekly blog that will talk about all things food (with recipes, of course)]
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