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Sesame oil (Recipe: bulgogi)


As a novice cook devoted to Julia Child's television shows, I learned that a mirepoix of three aromatic vegetables — onions, carrots, celery — flavors much of French cooking.

Cajun cooks also use a flavor base of three vegetables: onions, bell pepper and celery. They call it the Trinity.

My own trinity has nothing to do with vegetables, though it has everything to do with flavor, and it's most certainly aromatic. I call it the Cantonese 3-2-1 Trinity, and it's my basic stir-fry sauce.

Three parts low-sodium soy sauce.

Two parts oyster sauce.

One part sesame oil.

There are two types of sesame oil, light (made by pressing raw seeds) and dark (made from hulled sesame seeds that have been toasted prior to pressing). Available in Asian markets and in the Asian food aisle in most supermarkets, dark sesame oil is the one to use in Chinese-, Korean-, or Japanese-inspired cooking.

Sesame oil isn't often used as a cooking oil, though it does have a high smoke point of 450°F (compared to extra-virgin olive oil at 405°F and peanut oil at 440°F). This oil can take the heat, but its intense nuttiness makes it better suited to use as a seasoning towards the middle or end of cooking. It's a key flavor component in Chinese and Korean cooking, where it features in peanut sauce, tofu and beef stir-fries, and in cold dishes like broccoli and chicken salads, sesame noodles and salmon tartare

I'm partial to the Maruhon brand, which I can find at several local Asian markets. Kadoya brand is another good brand. A little goes a long way, and, once opened, a bottle will keep at room temperature for up to a year.

By the way, if you substitute chili paste with garlic for the sesame oil, you have a Szechuan 3-2-1 Trinity that kicks up any stir-fry. Now you know all of my secrets for basic Chinese cooking.


The recipe for this fabulous Korean barbecue dish is adapted from Dok Suni, by Jenny Kwak. Serves 3-4.


2-1/2 lbs rib eye, sirloin tips (best value), or beef tenderloin (delicious, but expensive)
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp crushed garlic
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp rice wine (sake)
Pinch of black pepper
1/2 piece of fresh kiwi, juiced in a blender

For the dipping sauce:
1 Tbsp soybean paste
1 tsp crushed garlic
2 tsp red pepper sauce (I use chili paste with garlic)
1 tsp salad oil
2 Tbsp water

2 heads red-leaf lettuce


Trim the fat off the beef with a knife, and butterfly the meat so it is 1/4-inch thick. (Slice almost all the way through, then open like a book and flatten with the palm of your hand.) Distribute the sugar evenly on the beef by sprinkling it on each piece. Allow beef to sit for 10 minutes.

In a separate bowl, mix together the soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, sugar, sake, and black pepper. Put aside.

Massage the beef with the kiwi juice using your hands. The kiwi works as a tenderizer. Add the soy sauce mixture and mix. Allow the beef to marinate for 10 minutes. Because the beef is thin, it doesn’t require a long marinating time. Now it is ready to be barbecued. Ideal if grilled over smoked wood but just as good in a frying pan or a skillet (I do it on a gas grill, which is fine, too.). Cook until browned, being careful not to overcook.

To prepare dipping sauce, combine all ingredients and cook over low heat for 15-20 minutes. Serve the beef wrapped in red lettuce leaves, with the sauce on the side for dipping.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

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I've always found sesame oil too strong-tasting, but after reading your post I suspect it's because I've probably been using too much of it. Love your "trinity"!

I use Trader Joe's Toasted Sesame oil - I think it's my fav. oil.

have you tried rice bran oil yet?????

Interesting I was just grilling my co-worker who is part korean about this recipe.
She did say that the secret is in the sesami oil, she said she uses honey...her mom uses syrup... i guess this is the substitute for your brown sugar... now I have plenty of variations :)

I love the asian trinity, which I learned from Lydia of course ! When I don't know what's for dinner, I cook some brown rice, (it's great to cook extra and have some ready to go in the freezer) "trinitize" whatever vegetables happen to be in the fridge and dig up a little protein - leftover meat, tofu or a few nuts.

This sounds fantastic. I didn't know about the Asian Trinity either! See how much you're teaching us!

I had no idea that Dok Suni put out a cookbook! It was a favorite restaurant of mine(-and the Bulgogi was my favorite dish there) when I lived in nyc years ago. Thanks for the memoricipe. "Maruhon" is my favorite dark sesame oil.

I never thought much about it before, Lydia, but Julia was right about onion, carrots and celery. No wonder my father liked her so much.

I've got to think more about the Trinity concept. . .

I never thought much about it before, Lydia, but Julia was right about onion, carrots and celery. No wonder my father liked her so much.

I've got to think more about the Trinity concept. . .

Ivonne, I use very small amounts of sesame oil and, until recently, didn't realize that it's best added later in the cooking, more as a condiment.

Catherine, for all the TJ's products I've used, I've not tried the sesame oil. I definitely will -- curious now about how it compares to my Maruhon brand.

Ellen, I haven't tried it. Anyone?

Veron, honey is a great idea with sesame oil. The texture and viscosity would be wonderful.

Mary, you know all of my kitchen secrets! But seriously, once you learn a formula for Asian cooking, you can always throw together a great Asian-inspired meal.

Kalyn, learning how to use Asian condiments changed my cooking forever. I feel so lucky to live near Asian markets.

Lilbee, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. One of the women in my #1 Cooking Group brought us this recipe, and I loved the cookbook. Don't know if the restaurant is still around, but I would love to try it on my next visit to NYC.

Mimi, I know you are into spice pairings; I love the ones you've been writing about on your blog. Ever since learning about the mirepoix, I've been fascinated with three-flavor combinations. The Szechuan Trinity is my favorite go-to.

YUM! Bulgogi! I love Korean food and plan on making jap chae in the near future. I tend to have a hard time finding TOASTED sesame oil in supermarkets. Though I should probably try an Asian supermarket now. Thanks for the link and the "trinity" tips! :)

Stefanie, sesame oil isn't always marked "toasted", which is a bit confusing, I admit. Look first for color; oil made from toasted seeds is always a dark brown. Generally what you find in Asian markets is the kind you want, whether or not it says "toasted" on the label. In regular grocery stores you have to be a bit more careful, as the sesame oil sold in "health food" aisles may not be the toasted oil.

I agree kiwi is a useful tenderizing ingredient. Unfortunately you can over-tenderize as I discovered when I marinated some lamb shoulder in kiwi too long (overnight!) The texture was as if it was pre-digested--it was a disaster! I use a sauce trinity for Thai food (well mainly stir-fries with basil)
fish sauce, soy sauce and oyster sauce.Love your blog!

Tried your Cantonese 3-2-1 Trinity last night and it was amazing. The hubs and I both really liked it. The dish had already been started when we noticed we were out of our regular stuff. Thank goodness I remembered seeing this on your site ... Thanks for saving our stir fry !!!

CJ, hooray for having a great pantry filled with all the right stuff!

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