Sesame seeds (Recipe: zahtar)
In one of my all-time favorite 1950s cartoons, "Ali Baba Bunny" (watch it here), the not-too-bright Hassan stands guard at the entrance to the cave where the evil Sultan has hidden his treasures. When he sees Bugs Bunny tunneling into the cave, Hassan desperately tries to remember the magic words to open the cave door.
"Open, sasparilla!" he cries. "Open, Saskatchewan!" Nope. "Open, saddle soap!" (Huh?)
And then, at last, "Open, sesame!" and the door swings up to reveal the riches inside. Like magic.
I loved "Ali Baba Bunny", though my toddler brain couldn't quite catch all of the words. So, whenever we pulled the car up to the front of our house, I would wave my arms around and proclaim, with a flourish:
Open, says me!
And my father would get out of the car and open the garage door. Every time. Like magic.
As I sat down to write about the black (unhulled) and white (hulled) sesame seeds in The Perfect Pantry, I wondered about the origin of "Open, sesame!" It seems to date back to the tales of The Arabian Nights, and refers to the popping sound of the seeds inside a mature sesame pod, similar to the sound of a lock opening.
One of the world's oldest foods, the flowering sesame plant is thought to have originated in India. Today, China is the largest producer of sesame seeds (and the oil pressed from them), but sesame is cultivated throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia, as well as in Texas, Louisiana, California and Arizona. (In the American South, sesame is called benne, and is popular in benne wafers.)
Sesame seeds — rich in minerals (especially magnesium and iron), vitamins and calcium — add both a nutty flavor and/or a bit of crunch to many dishes, including halvah, palitaw, jien duy, and tahini, as well as more familiar recipes like muffins. Sesame oil features in many Asian recipes, and it's often blended with lighter oils for frying tempura. Don't forget scallion bread, which gets its distinctive flavor not from scallions, but from the sesame oil blended into the dough. And nothing looks better on an inside-out roll than black sesame seeds, which I buy at my local Asian market where they are inexpensive and readily available.
Sesame seeds are prone to rancidity, so store them in the refrigerator or freezer.
A wonderful appetizer (sometimes spelled za'atar) served with olive oil and wedges of pita bread. Dip the bread in oil, and then in the zahtar. Recipe adapted from Recipes for an Arabian Night: Traditional Cooking from North Africa & the Middle East, by David Scott. Serves 6.
1/2 cup walnuts or hazelnuts
1/2 cup coriander seeds
1 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup cumin seeds
Salt and black pepper
Put first four ingredients in a food processor, or use a mortar and pestle, and gently blend or crush the mixture to a dry crumble. (Do not process so long that it turns into a paste.) Season to taste with salt and pepper.