Sesame Seed Oil is pretty much a mainstay in Chinese cuisine but is also used as a cooking oil in Southern India, particularly Tamil Nadu where it is known as gingelly oil or til oil.
It comes in both a raw form which is clear or light yellow; this has a mild flavour and is almost odourless. This has a very high smoke point and is suitable for deep frying.
More common is the toasted variety which is varying shades of brown (from golden to amber if you want to be poetic about it). This is more suitable for stir frying, seasoning and as part of a marinade. Toasted sesame oil has a very distinctive flavour and aroma, a quite strong burnt nutty taste.
As well as its use as a cooking oil, its other uses include massaging,
hair treatments and (of course) religious uses.
The sesame plant (Sesamum) is native to Africa but all the archaelogical evidence points to the fact that it was first cultivated in India more than 4000 years ago. Sesame has many uses; it is a spice, a condiment and a food; it is also grown for oil.
Sesame seeds have been pressed for oil thoughout history, they were amoungst the first crops to be processed for oil. In fact sesame was practically synonymous with oil - the words for 'oil' in both the Tamil and Hindu languages have roots in their words for 'sesame'.
Even though it was relatively expensive, the Assyrians were using sesame seed oil as a food, a salve, and a medication before 600 BC and Hindus used it in votive lamps and considered the oil sacred.
The light, raw form of sesame oil has a high smoke point and is suitable for deep frying as well as for stir frying. A typical Tamil dish might well use sesame oil for frying.
The toasted, darker varieties have a lower smoke point and are really only suitable for stir frying although roasted sesame oil is more commonly used for seasoning. The depth of colour is a good indicator of the taste, the darker the oil the more insense the flavours and I would only use the darker oils for seasoning a dish rather than cooking.
Sesame seed oil is high in polyunsaturates particularly omega-6 fatty acids which are usually unstable and go rancid at room temperature, but sesame oil also contains natural antioxidants and therefore will keep for ages.
It has loads of vitamin E as well as vitamin K and some B6, it contains the minerals magnesium, copper, calcium, iron and zinc
Throughout history sesame seed oil has been regarded as a medicine as well as a food and many extravigant claims have been made of it - not many are supported by modern research. Ancient Hindu medicine mentions usage of sesame oil for unblocking the arteries and treating diabetes, hepatitis and migraines and in regulating cholesterol levels.
The high vitamin E and antioxidant content are likely to be responsible for most of the purported benefits. Its natural antioxident and antibacterial properties make it a commonly used massage oil where it will help to control bateria and fungal infections of the skin as well as controlling burns and other skin irritations. It is absorbed by the skin very easily where the antioxidants can control the free radicals below the skin surface.
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