Sesame opens doors to a world of flavor
Like many ancient Mediterranean crops, sesame crossed the Atlantic with the Spanish conquistadors to find a welcoming home in Latin America.
Thought to have originated in the central savannas of Africa or the Indus Valley of India, sesame ("Sesamum indicum") is a tall herb prized for its oil-rich seeds. The plant bears multi-hued pods that pop when ripe, scattering the minuscule seeds to the seven winds -- an apt metaphor for its broad spread to the warm regions of the world.
In a Babylonian creation myth dating to the second millennium B.C., the gods drink sesame wine. The people of the Middle East found numerous uses for the seed, toasting it and sprinkling on foods or grinding it to make sweets like halvah and seasoning pastes like tahini.
By the 12th century, sesame was growing in Islamic Spain, where cooks extracted the oil and also used the seeds in sweets like turron blanco, a crunchy white nougat sweetened with honey and bound with egg whites.
Today, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Venezuela are important growers of sesame. As in Spain, it is known there as "sesame" or "ajonjoli," while in Portuguese-speaking Brazil it is called "gergelim," all derivations of its Arabic names.
In the Latin kitchen, sesame crops up in many guises. Mexicans grind toasted seeds with a half-dozen nuts and spices to thicken and flavor moles. Puerto Ricans grind them with almonds to make sweets, and in many countries, sesame is the main ingredient of milky drinks called horchatas.
In the Cuba of my youth, bakers sprinkled the seeds on crackers and breads, while Chinese immigrants made delicious nougat-like sweets called "palanquetas."
The Chinese in Peru use sesame abundantly. Typical of Peruvian "chifas" (the generic name for Chinese restaurants in the country) is poultry braised with sesame seeds or coated with the seeds and deep-fried to a crunchy texture, the inspiration for today's recipe.
Hulled white seeds are widely available, but it's worth a trip to a specialty store for darker, unhulled sesame, which has a more pronounced flavor and crunchier texture when toasted or fried.