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Chefs go onward and upward with versatile sesame seed concoctions
By Gao Ceng

FEW ingredients in the Chinese kitchen offer the versatility and flexibility of sesame, giving chefs space to create some interesting dishes.

Sesame is used as a topping to add fragrance, a seasoning for flavor, a key ingredient in some desserts and a raw material to extract oil. According to traditional Chinese medicine, it is good for nourishing the body and preventing autumn dryness.

Chefs also like sesame because of its auspicious meaning in Chinese culture, symbolizing rising or being promoted, according to Lai Wing Koon, dim sum chef at The Peninsula Shanghai. "Sesame is basically used for presentation, aroma and texture in Chinese kitchens," Lai says.

Black sesame seeds add contrast to a flat or dull-looking dish. A good example is the Shanghai specialty shengjian (pan-fried dumplings with pork filling). Black sesame seeds are sprinkled on the white dumplings. Japanese chefs often sprinkle some black sesame seeds on rice to make it look more appealing.

Sesame seeds also have a distinctive aroma, which enhances flavor.

"Although sesame seeds do not have a strong taste, when they are cooked with other ingredients, for example, sugar and oil, the aroma enhances the sweetness, giving the taste more richness and dimension," Lai says.

Sesame is also a good enhancer of chili. For example, koushui ji (steamed chicken marinated in chili sauce), a Sichuan dish, includes white sesame seeds in the chili sauce, adding a mellowness that leads to more complexity to the fiery chili.

Meanwhile, Chinese pastry chefs often use sesame for texture.

"In the pastry kitchen, generally, sesame is either used to coat the dough before frying or mashed into a paste as a filling," Lai says.

From buns and dumplings to glutinous balls, a sesame coating gives each bite more crispiness. When mashed into a paste, sesame, with its high oil and fat content, creates a silky and sandy texture.

Two types of sesame, white and black, are available in Shanghai.

According to Chun Wai Sing, Chinese executive chef at Renaissance Shanghai Caohejing Hotel, they are used differently.

"Black sesame seeds, comparatively, have more nutritional benefits from the aspect of TCM. Hence, we prefer using it as a main ingredient, no matter whether it's a normal dish or in pastries," Chun says.

A simple TCM recipe to nourish the stomach and lungs, as well as to strengthen hair, is to simply fry black sesame until well done and grind into a powder. Then mix with chopped walnut and milk.

White sesame is more suitable as a dressing to flavor other ingredients, especially braised dishes, Chun says.

Sesame is also common in Mediterranean cuisine, especially in Turkey, Lebanon and North Africa, according to Jean Luc Coulot, executive chef at Shanghai Marriott Hotel Luwan.

Sesame is often made into a tahini paste, which is one of the ingredients in hummus, and sweet confections, Coulot says.

Here is a look at how both Chinese and Western chefs at some five-star hotels interpret sesame.

Deep-fried custard sesame ball

奶黄芝麻球 (38 yuan+15%)

The sesame ball is made of glutinous rice coated with white sesame and filled with sweetened egg yolk. Chef Lai says he often prepares it as a dessert for a celebratory banquet due to its golden color and round shape, which symbolize wealth and reunion.

The balls have a distinctive sweet and nutty smell. It has layers of texture, from the crispy outer skin, glutinous but not sticky middle part to the milky sandy filling.

Lai says it should be served hot and fresh or it will lose its fragrance and crispy texture and become too soft and sticky. Since the sesame balls are deep-fried in oil, Lai recommends serving it with Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy), an Oolong tea known for its long lasting flavor and reducing greasiness.

Peanut paste sesame ball

雷纱汤丸(38 yuan+15%)

This boiled ball is made from glutinous flour coated with peanut powder and filled with black sesame paste. It features a hot-and-cold, dry-and-moist taste. The peanut powder and glutinous rice on the outside is cold and dry while the sesame filling inside is hot and fluid, which creates a nice contrast in the mouth. Be careful when eating as it's easy to burn the mouth.

Venue: Yi Long Court, The Peninsula Shanghai, 2/F, 32 Zhongshan Rd E1

Tel: 2327-6742

Starch jelly with chicken and sesame paste

酱麻鸡丝粉皮(48 yuan+15%)

Starch jelly made from green bean, shredded chicken and cucumber are tossed into a thick and flavorful dressing based on white sesame.

The dressing, Chun's private recipe, is aromatic and nutty and has a unique savory taste.

The diverse textures is derived from the three main ingredients - tender chicken, crunchy cucumber and a bouncy jelly texture.

Venue: Wan Li Restaurant, Renaissance Shanghai Caohejing Hotel, 397 Tianlin Rd

Tel: 3325-8333

Fried kibbeh and tahini sauce

芝麻羊肉卷(78 yuan+15%)

Chef Jean learned this traditional Arabic dish while working in 5-star hotels in Egypt. Kibbeh is a favorite snack in the Middle East and many countries have their own recipes.

Chef Jean serves these small meatballs with a creamy sesame tahini sauce. "To make kibbeh, you need to mince lamb meat, fried bulghur wheat, onions and spices. Shape them into small teardrop balls and gently fried to crispy," he says.

Tahini sauce is made from a combination of sesame seed paste, olive oil and lemon juice. Together they form a great snack with the crisp shell and the fluffy meat and the soft wheat.

Venue: Shanghai Marriott Hotel Luwan, 99 Jiangbin Rd (only available in banquet)

Tel: 5318-8888

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164