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Open sesame

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about hulls.

No, I'm not pining for the nonexistent seafaring days of my youth. My mind is on sesame seeds and their tiny, tasty little hulls.

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Until recently, however, I wasn't even sure how to tell whether my sesame seeds had their hulls on. Even if it says "hulled" on the package, what does that mean? Hull on or off? And who cares?

You should, because hull-on sesame (I'm going to stick to the terms "hull-on" and "hull-off" for clarity) tastes better. And hull-on seeds are quite lovely.

"The hull varies from white to buff-color all the way to brown to light gold to gray to dark brown," says Ray Langham, the director of research for Sesaco Corporation. "A \[hull-off\] seed, it's a lot whiter, almost translucent. If you look carefully at the seeds on a McDonald's bun, they almost have a shiny appearance."

Sesaco is a commercial sesame grower in Texas and environs, and Langham is a font of sesame knowledge. In addition to the color of the hull, he explained, there are two other ways to identify a hull-on seed: most hull-on seeds have a black tip, and all have a seed line on one side of the seed. 

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="Hull-on sesame seeds, left, and hull-off sesame seeds, right."]

And if your sesame seeds are black — more about this in a minute — you're definitely looking at hull-on seeds.

h3. Roasty and toasty

"It is probably in Japan that the use of sesame seeds has been most highly developed," writes Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food. What's he talking about? Japanese cooks take hull-on sesame seeds, toast them, then coarsely grind them — traditionally in a mortar and pestle (suribachi,) but a spice grinder works fine. There's no better way to maximize the flavor and texture of a sesame seed.

Coarse-ground toasted sesame is the basis for gomashio, a simple mixture of sesame and salt that is good on everything. It's used to make goma ae, a delicious dressing for spinach or other vegetables.

And it is fabulous on noodles. I learned this from Kentaro Kobayashi, a Japanese TV cooking-show host who has written five delightful little cookbooks in English. The guy cannot restrain himself: he puts sesame in just about everything, and he always describes it as "roasty," "toasty," or both. His recipe for miso-sautéed udon uses several tablespoons of coarse-ground black sesame seeds.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Black and white sesame seeds."]

I don't mean to put down all hull-off sesame products or to imply that Japanese food is the beginning and end of the discussion. Tahini is made with hull-off seeds. However, Langham explained, the seeds in this case are usually water-dehulled, a process that leaves some hull in place. (So what's the more common way to remove the hull? Soak the seeds in lye.)

Over on the Chinese side, jarred sesame paste is made from hull-on seeds. If you want to experience the power of sesame hulls, try tasting some tahini and (slightly diluted) Chinese sesame paste side by side.

Like most nuts and seeds, sesame tastes better when toasted. And, like most nuts and seeds, sesame is easy to burn. The best way to toast it, I find, is in the oven. Spread the seeds out on a baking sheet and put them in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Yes, you will probably burn the first batch.

h3. In black and white

Now, what about those black sesame seeds? They're common in Japanese and Indian cuisine and should be more common here. They're always hull-on (the seed inside is white). You can toast them, but you need to be careful, since it's impossible to tell by sight when they're on the verge of burning.

Black sesame seeds don't taste fundamentally different from white. But I find that black seeds sold in Asian markets tend to be higher quality and less often rancid. (They also cost more, of course.) And when you make them into a sauce, it looks fabulous, speckled with black dots of ground sesame that resemble the vanilla seeds in premium ice cream. Seriously, try Kobayashi's udon recipe. It will remind you of your nonexistent salad days as a sesame farmer.

Speaking of which, sesame seeds are also great on salads.

p(bio). [matthew.reviews@gmail.com "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle.


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