It was the Great Sesame Chicken Debacle of 1975.
I’m guessing on the 1975 part. It was certainly around then. 1975-ish.
At the time, my mother had decided, for reasons I never fully understood, to serve the same dish at every dinner party: sesame chicken. This wasn’t the sesame chicken, breaded and fried and coated in a gloppy sauce, served at some Chinese restaurants. This was whole pieces of chicken lacquered with a lightly sweet dark glaze and coated with sesame seeds. Every party my parents threw, out came the sesame chicken to “oohs” and “ahhs,” and the occasional, quiet “not again.”
Their guests knew what to expect. For anyone invited for the first time to one of the parties, my mother announced that she was serving her famous sesame chicken. Until that one time, in 1975, or thereabouts.
She brought out the chicken. There were the expected “oohs” and “ahhs.” And then one guest said, “If this is sesame chicken, where is the sesame?”
She had forgotten to put on the sesame. What she brought out to her guests was just … chicken.
OK, it was funnier at the time than reading about it now. But that is what I think of almost every time I use sesame as a major component in a dish.
Sesame seeds have been a major part of the world’s cooking for a long time. A very long time. Archaeologists have found traces of sesame seeds dating back nearly 5,000 years. Ancient cultures began growing the plant specifically for the flavorful oil in its seeds more than 3,000 years ago. Though sesame seeds are primarily grown in Southeast Asia (Myanmar, India, China) and Africa, they are used practically everywhere throughout the world, from Sweden to Argentina.
A bagel isn’t a bagel without sesame seeds. Falafel needs tahini, which is made from ground sesame seeds. And even sesame chicken needs sesame seeds, although apparently not always.
For my culinary exploration of all things sesame, I decided to try a bit of everything from everywhere. A bread that is ubiquitous in Turkey. A chilled vegetable dish from China. A dessert from Africa. A crisp cookie from the Middle East. A sweetbread from a cookbook based on the movie “Casablanca.”
About that cookbook: Ordinarily, cookbooks that try to capitalize on a movie or television show are next to worthless; they are printed solely to make a quick buck off people who want anything that reminds them of their favorite movie. “Casablanca” happens to be my favorite movie, but my wife gave me “The Casablanca Cookbook” because recipes in it looked intriguing.
Jan’s sesame bread looked especially intriguing (and you have to be a serious “Casablanca” nerd to know that Jan is the young man from Bulgaria who comes to Rick’s with his younger wife in the hopes of winning enough money at roulette to buy a ticket to America).
Three ingredients make the bread so tempting and unusual. One is prunes, the second is yogurt and the third is tea. The prunes are softened and cut into small pieces to be found like treasure throughout the loaves. The yogurt provides both flavor and a softer crumb. And the tea isn’t mixed into the bread at all; rather, it is used to soften and flavor the prunes, giving them a hint of tannin to cut their natural sweetness.
It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The Turkish bread, simit, is so popular that bakeries make it twice a day, in the morning and the afternoon. It is sold from street-corner stalls, carts and even off the back of bicycles. The bread is circular and not too tall, and is covered in the sesame seeds that provide most of its signature flavor. The crust can be hard (apparently, in some parts of the country it is harder than others) but the inside is chewy. I have no proof of this whatsoever, but I’ve always thought that simit was a precursor to bagels.
Their appearance alone is irresistible, and their taste is great.
For a savory treat, I looked to China, the country that uses sesame the most – in both seed and oil form – in everyday meals. My interest was piqued by a vegetable dish called cold sesame broccoli. It begins with broccoli that has been peeled (if you’ve never done it, it makes the broccoli exceptionally tender and flavorful) and blanched, and then mixed together with sesame seeds, sesame oil, soy sauce, peanut oil, garlic and green onions.
Served cold, it is the perfect mixture of Chinese flavors, but if you want to add a little ginger or pepper flakes to it, I, for one, would not object.
I next made a batch of sesame-honey wafers, a heavenly concoction common throughout the Middle East. It takes the popular combination of sesame seeds and honey and turns it into a cookie instead of the more familiar candy that always gets stuck in your teeth. Naturally, a lot of butter is used, plus sugar and egg whites to keep them light. The ingredient that you wouldn’t think of, powdered ginger, does the job of keeping them from becoming cloyingly sweet.
If the truth absolutely has to be told, these cookies get a little stuck in your teeth, too. But they are so spectacularly delicious – with coffee, with ice cream or just by themselves – that this minor inconvenience is quickly forgotten.
Finally, I found edible inspiration in North Africa for a dessert called tekoua, or at least I think I did. I have been unable to find any reference to tekoua, by any variation of the name, other than the one recipe I saw in a single cookbook. But even if it does not exist, it should. Tekoua is a sesame-seed dessert at its most elemental. It only has two ingredients, sesame seeds and powdered sugar, plus a little water to make a glaze.
It would be hard to be any easier than this. You pound sesame seeds into a paste with a mortar and pestle (I used a spice grinder, which was much faster), and gradually add powdered sugar to it. Then you form this paste into little balls and dunk them in a simple glaze made from more powdered sugar and a bit of water.
It’s sheer sesame goodness.
Makes about 40 wafers
Adapted from “Artichoke to Za’atar,” by Greg Malouf and Lucy Malouf.
1/2cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
4 tablespoons honey
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
2/3cup sesame seeds
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
With an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar at high speed. Add the honey, flour and powdered ginger. When they are fully blended, add the egg whites and mix until all the ingredients are well combined.
Drop mixture by teaspoonfuls onto prepared baking sheets and use a wet finger to spread them into circles about 1/16-inch thick. Sprinkle the circles liberally with sesame seeds, pouring off any excess.
Bake 7 to 10 minutes until golden brown. Depending on placement in the oven, one sheet may be ready before the other.
Slide the parchment paper onto a wire rack and allow to cool. Store wafers in an airtight container.
Per wafer: 72 calories; 3 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 6 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 9 g carbohydrate; 7 g sugar; no fiber; 24 mg sodium; 7 mg calcium.
Simit (sesame bread rings)
Adapted from “Artichoke to Za’atar,” by Greg Malouf and Lucy Malouf.
1packet (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
1/2teaspoon granulated sugar
3/4cup lukewarm water, 105 to 115 degrees
1pound (33/4 cups) all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached
1tablespoon honey or granulated sugar
1tablespoon melted butter or sunflower oil
A few drops olive or sunflower oil
1cup sesame seeds
Mix together the yeast and 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar in a little of the lukewarm water. Let stand 10 minutes until frothy.
Sift the flour with the salt into a bowl and stir in the honey or additional tablespoon of sugar. Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast, tablespoon of oil and the rest of the water. Use your hands to draw the flour in from the sides. Add more water if necessary, a tablespoon or two at a time; it may take an additional 1/2 cup or more. The dough will be very stiff.
Knead well until the dough is very smooth, springy and elastic, about 15 minutes. Roll the ball of dough in a few drops of olive oil in a bowl and cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap. Allow to rise until it doubles in size, about 2 hours.
Punch down dough, knead a few times, and roll into a log. Divide the log into 6 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a tight ball and let rest under a slightly damp towel for 30 minutes.
Roll each ball into a 14-inch long rope. Hold down one end of the rope with one hand while twisting it a few turns with the other. Then form this twisted rope into a ring, pressing and rolling the overlapping ends together on the work surface with one hand to seal. Place rings on 2 greased baking sheets, cover with a damp towel and let rest 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread sesame seeds on a plate. Brush each ring with the beaten egg and then dip into the sesame seeds, coating it heavily. Rotate each ring gently through your hands, enlarging it into a 7-inch circle. Place the rings back on the baking sheets and let rest 15 minutes or until well puffed. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until they are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
Per simit: 417 calories; 12 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 36 mg cholesterol; 13 g protein; 64 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 438 mg sodium; 73 mg calcium.
Cold sesame broccoli
Serves 4 to 6
Recipe from “Complete Chinese Cookbook” by Ken Hom.
1tablespoon sesame seeds
11/2pounds (approximately) broccoli
1tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
2teaspoons sesame oil
2teaspoons finely chopped garlic
11/2tablespoons light soy sauce or regular soy sauce
2tablespoons finely chopped green onions
Place sesame seeds over medium heat in a small skillet. Cook, shaking pan occasionally, until seeds become fragrant and turn a couple of shades darker, about 3 to 5 minutes. Watch carefully to avoid burning. Set aside. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
Cut off the broccoli heads and break them into small florets. Use a vegetable peeler to peel broccoli stems and then cut them into bite-size pieces. Cook all broccoli pieces in the boiling water for 4 to 5 minutes; then drain and dry them in a colander or salad spinner. Place in a clean bowl.
Mix the remaining ingredients, including the sesame seeds, in a small bowl. When well-mixed, pour over broccoli and toss. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold. May be served the next day.
Per serving (based on 6): 68 calories; 5 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 2 g protein; 6 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 163 mg sodium; 38 mg calcium.