The finer points of sesame oil
Fragrant and nutty with a distinctive aroma and taste, sesame oil is an indispensable ingredient in the Asian kitchen. Its uses are myriad—as a seasoning, a marinade, as a cooking oil or increasingly, even as a dressing. Beyond the kitchen, sesame oil is also used in alternative medicine and treatments, such as in the traditional Indian holistic healing system of Ayurveda. There are many different varieties of sesame oil on the market—the cold-pressed variety popular in Western health shops; Indian sesame oil, better known as gingelly; and of course, the roasted sesame oil most Asian cooks are familiar with.
Sesame oil is produced by pressing the seeds of the sesame plant, which can be found in the tropics, from Tanzania and the Sudan to India, parts of China and Myanmar. At Chee Seng, one of Singapore’s most well-loved household sesame brands, sesame oil is produced from seeds sourced from all over the world. They are first cleaned, then roasted and pressed to release their oil.
We speak to Lim Kay Kheng of Chee Seng Sesame Oil about the finer points of this fragrant condiment.
What are the key differences between white and black sesame seeds and the oil they produce? The key difference between white and black sesame seeds is the colour of the husk. There are many varieties and colours of sesame seed including brown, gold, red and of course, black and white. In terms of taste, aroma and nutrition, there are very subtle differences between the two. At Chee Seng, we choose quality black and white sesame seeds, and process them carefully to ensure a rich flavour and nutty taste.
Some producers over-roast the seeds to give their sesame oil an extra boost of flavour, and market it as black sesame oil. But this tends to give a bitterness that’s not very pleasant at all.
What are some of the health benefits of sesame oil? Sesame oil has numerous health benefits. It is rich in vitamins—the most significant being vitamin A, vitamin B and vitamin E—and has anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial properties.
What is sesame oil all about? We get the lowdown from Lim Kay Kheng, the sales and marketing director of homegrown Singapore brand Chee Seng Sesame Oil
The main nutrients in the sesame seeds are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, protein, fibre, calcium, iron and vitamin E. The two main fatty acids in sesame are oleic and linoleic fatty acids, which are both rich in omega-6. Oleic acid helps to lower harmful cholesterol (low density lipoprotein) and promotes good cholesterol (high density lipo-protein) in the body. Linoleic acid is needed as a building component of lipo-protein. As our body cannot produce this fatty acid, we have to obtain it through what we eat.
There are also natural antioxidants in sesame. One of which is vitamin E, a fat-soluble antioxidant that protects the body from harmful oxidizing compounds. It is also good for the heart and nervous system. Other antioxidants present include sesamin, sesamolin and sesamol.
Studies have also shown that sesame oil helps to inhibit the proliferation of mycobacterium tuberculosis.
Should we use sesame oil to cook? Roasted sesame oil can be used for light cooking, but not deep-frying as it has a low smoke point and distinct fragrance. Sesame oil is mainly used for marinating and as a seasoning. Of course, there are exceptions such as in confinement dishes, where sesame oil is used liberally. The Chinese believe that sesame oil helps to expel ‘wind’ and nourish the body after childbirth, hence the heavy use of sesame oil in confinement dishes such as sesame oil chicken.
How should we store sesame oil in the home kitchen? Store sesame oil in a cool dry area, away from the stove, heat and sunlight.
How long does sesame oil keep? Sealed bottles of sesame oil can last up to four years. Once opened, it can last four to six months before it turns rancid.
How does one judge the quality of a sesame oil? A good quality sesame oil should have a strong nutty fragrance of sesame. The oil should be light clear, brown in colour, similar to that of a whisky. On the palate, it should taste clean, and not bitter or “oily”.
What are some popular misconceptions about sesame oil? Some people mistakenly think that as it is an oil, it is unhealthy. That’s clearly untrue as sesame oil has many health benefits. Another misconception is that black sesame oil should be black in colour. While the sesame seed used is indeed black in colour, the colour of the oil should be a clear whisky brown.