Italians have olive oil and so do the Greeks. Mediterranean cold-pressed oils are a thing of beauty around the world. You would be hard pressed (no pun intended) to find a dish from the coastal towns and country villages of Italy, Europe and Croatia for that matter where olive oil is not generously drizzled over pasta, salad and even soups and desserts.
While we have an affection for olive oil, there are other high-calibre oils that also warrant your attention, and I'm not talking about the avocado and coconut kind. What about the oil derived from that tiny little seed with punchy-prowess: the sesame seed?
Nutty, deeply earthy and intense, sesame oil has long been regarded as a premium fat and cooking essential in many Asian kitchens. While peanut oil is widely used in Chinese, Taiwanese and Southeast Asian cooking, sesame oil is perhaps king when it comes to flavour and packing a punch in what otherwise would be ho-hum recipes.
I remember summers in Australia with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius, the AC blaring and fans swishing the curtains in our dining room as my whole family tucked into deep bowls of peanut and sesame oil noodles. A simple dish made in a flash where a couple of ingredients — peanut butter or sesame paste, sesame oil and salt — are mixed into a loose sauce and then into homemade noodles for instant hunger-pain relief.
Similarly, otherwise bland in nature and texture, a simple carton of tofu can instantly be transformed into a delightful and refreshing side dish with a spritz of soy sauce, generous drizzle of sesame oil and a garnish of spring onions.
I did, however, not always have a fond affection for sesame oil. My disdain for it as a child possibly arose from heavy-handed chefs at Chinese restaurants who would go full-throttle garnishing a dish with it. Unlike olive oil, sesame oil should be used sparingly or at least masterfully to ensure the perfect balance of flavours. Sesame seeds are tiny in appearance but intense as an oil which is why it is most commonly used as a garnish, but in countries like Korea and Taiwan, the oil is highly prized as a premium ingredient, not just a condiment.
"Nutty, deeply earthy and intense, sesame oil has long been regarded as a premium fat and cooking essential in many Asian kitchens."
Koreans have long regarded the fat as a key ingredient, with apparently a woman offering sesame oil or chamgireum to the Buddha Gods in 668AD. Recipes from Korea, as my chef friends have told me, include marinating beef slices in sesame oil before barbecuing them on a hot grill (bulgogi), as well as using it as a dipping sauce. In Japan, salads are nearly always made with sesame oil for a nutty crunch and flavour, such as spinach and seaweed salad. It's also used in Japanese beef stir-fries known as yakiniku. Chef Gopi of Searz Caffi in Melbourne, says sesame oil or sesame-derived gingelly oil is used in his family recipes. "We traditionally use sesame or gingelly oil in dosas made at home," says Gopi.
He continues, "It gives the dosa a nutty taste, something other oils cannot do. We also add it to a dosa podi. The podi is a mix of roasted dhal spices and chilli. It is mixed with the gingelly oil and we dip our torn-up pieces of dosa in it." Chef Gopi says what many home cooks do not know is that Indian fish curry is also made with sesame oil and not traditional ghee. Fascinating and possibly why mine never quite tastes the same as that in restaurants.
Transform a plain fillet steak with these sesame and soy beef lollipops.
But it's with my family in Taiwan where sesame oil is used with far more generosity and much more adventurously. The recipe for authentic Taiwanese drunken sesame oil chicken soup uses at least a quarter of a cup of oil to baste and cook a whole chicken to feed a large family. There are also recipes for sticky sesame oil rice which garner long queues in some of Taiwan's famed night markets for the intense aroma which wafts through the narrow streets of Taipei well into the wee hours of the night.
With different grades of intensity, from light to dark and heavily roasted sesame seeds pressed into a luscious and viscous oil, I strongly encourage you to drop into your local Asian grocer and seek out the best sesame oil to heighten and elevate a dressing, marinate or even to toss through your fried egg noodles.
Get some sesame oil inspo with our recipe collection here.