The sesame seed is to the Lebanese what parmesan cheese is to the Italians: a must-have, an essential essential, a favorite flavor-maker. The seed has been one of the most important summer crops in the Middle East for thousands of years, which explains why sesame is everywhere in our cooking, from savory to sweet.
Sesame and the Lebanese are, it turns out, kindred spirits. The sesame crop is known as the “survivor crop,” because of its resilience and ability to grow in challenging conditions. We are a survivor crop of people in so many ways, with that long history of thriving amid unfavorable conditions.
The main thing about sesame is texture and flavor. The seeds are subtle in their crunch (there the kindred spirit ends; subtlety is not typical Lebanese, is it…) with deep, nutty, addictive flavor. Sesame seeds have one of the highest oil contents of any seed—so even though they are tiny, they pack serious flavor.
Sesame also packs a serious nutritional profile: cancer-fighting anti-oxidents, cholesterol-reducing fatty acids, and rich in vitamins, minerals and protein.
Sesame tahini (tahini means “to grind” in Arabic) is what I like to think of as adult peanut butter…it’s essential in our hummus and sauces, but the whole seeds are equally important components in spice mixes like za’atar, atop breads and cookies, and in candies.
Now don’t go buying little spice jars of sesame, which is all some groceries have to offer. That’s an amount meant for your doll house kitchen at a price that’ll sock it to you. Buy imported Middle Eastern sesame seeds (Ziyad is all over the place), at a fraction of the cost of the spice-bottle variety, in 16 oz. bags like this, either online or at your local Middle Eastern market. Of course, I like to keep mine in jars for a pretty shelf, and at-the-ready.