Years ago when I was in the field in Brasil, another American and I were sent to the nearest town to do the grocery shopping for the week’s meals for the entire crew, everyone else of whom was Brasilian. When we got to the store, we began working our way through the list we had been given. First up was beans. We always ate the same kind of beans, so why not get black instead of red? Into the basket they went. A different type of pumpkin was next, and we moved through the market making selections we thought would be a little more interesting, each item just a little different from the usual. After all, eating the same exact thing, day after day, meal after meal, why do that when we could try something new? We returned with our spoils and put everything away in the kitchen. Not a word would be spoken to us about what was, from that day forward, known between ourselves as “The Grocery Incident.” Once the food we bought was used up, however, the offerings reverted to the usual suspects, and we were never asked to help with the shopping again.
Having a different sort of food every night is a modern, western concept, and one that is not even embraced by all westerners. A great number of people derive comfort from the familiar, cooking the same dishes on a regular schedule, rarely if ever deviating from the norm. I am not one of those people. I love trying new things, and a shifting menu holds my interest in the same way that constantly changing sets of data keep me fascinated with my work in science. After all, there are at least 30,000 different plants around the planet that we could eat if we chose to. So many possibilities.
With a limited amount of space in the garden one can grow only so many types of plants, and one way to change things up is with seasonings and spices. I’ll start this series by making a pitch for sesame seeds, which are pretty easy to find and inexpensive, as spices go. Pitch #2 is to make a roasted sesame paste / butter that is both delicious and versatile. I am not referring to tahini, which is made from raw sesame and has a bitter edge, but a dark, rich, creamy paste made from toasted seeds, a seasoning that is traditionally used in classic Chinese dishes like dan dan noodles and eggplant in sesame sauce.
I put two cups of sesame seeds in a small sheet pan that went into the toaster oven at 375 for maybe 10 minutes, stirring and shaking the pan a few times, and I took them out when they were browning and starting to pop. Pro tip: don’t walk away from the toaster oven when you are cooking spices. After cooling for a few minutes, the seeds went into the high-powered blender with a tablespoon or so of roasted sesame oil, a neutral oil would work just fine, too, and it all got poured and scraped into a mason jar that went into the fridge with a label. If you don’t have a blender, you can also use a food processor, it will just take a little longer and may require a bit more oil to get things going. If push comes to shove, you can even use a mortar and pestle and have the added bonus of both releasing your frustrations and feeling perfectly OK about not working out today.
The first recipe I made with this batch of the sesame paste was bang bang “chicken” from the Omnivore’s cookbook. I also made her recipe for chili oil, which is just lovely, mixed up the sauce, which is phenomenal, poured it onto soy curls that I browned in a pan, and we had the finished dish over rice with yu choi. That’s the magic of a really good sauce – you can use it however you care to, and the same goes for the sesame paste. You can make a fantastic sauce for cold sesame noodles, which are great hot-weather food, throw in some tofu and mixed vegetables for a light meal, and use that same dressing on slaws, too. Not your thing? Spread it on your morning toast, or take any recipe that calls for either peanut butter or tahini and swap in the roasted sesame paste. Try it in hummus. Amaze and mystify your friends. Tell no one your secret. Enjoy!