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A Taste of Chinese Sauces - Part III

by Eva Koveos

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Winter Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(4) page(s): 15

Sesame seeds always remind me of an old childhood ritual I used to follow. Everyday my mom bought home a loaf of freshly baked bread from the neighborhood bakery. As soon as she would open the door, I could smell the aroma wafting through our kitchen. Then, with my sniffing around the bag and looking soulful, she gave in and broke off a piece for me to snack on.

Before I devoured the bread, I would pluck off all the sesame seeds with my nail and pile them up. When I finished the bread, it was time to crunch my way through the seeds, savoring their nutty flavor as I popped them into my mouth one by one.

As I got older, my mother introduced me to a variety of sesame products including tahini, a paste of ground sesame seeds made in the Mediterranean or the Middle East, and halva, a sweetmeat made with sesame.

Over the years, I tried different foods made of sesame seeds and became curious about how other cultures incorporate them into their cuisine. Once, when dining at a Chinese restaurant I tried Noodles in Sesame Paste and immediately took a liking to the flavor. I decided to buy a jar of the sauce to experiment with at home and have been using it in recipes ever since. In this final article on Chinese sauces let me share some information about sesame paste and its uses in the Chinese kitchen.

Sesame seeds have been used in China for more than two thousand years and are highly valued for being rich in protein. The Chinese use the seeds in numerous ways when incorporating them into their cuisine. Some are toasted and used as a garnish for foods, breads, cakes and confections. They also coat foods such as chicken with sesame seeds before cooking. This particular use gives a crunchy texture and a lot of flavor. The seeds are also pressed into oils or pastes that are used as flavoring agents or in sauces.

Chinese sesame paste, most popular in the northern and western regions of China, has a thick, creamy consistency much like that of peanut butter. It is quite similar to the tahini that my mother likes to buy, and on occasion I've found myself substituting one for the other. However, tahini is made from raw sesame seeds that when ground will not give the same rich color or flavor as the Chinese version which uses roasted sesame seeds. One major use of the Chinese sesame seed paste is used for cold salad and noodle dressings; I love its use there as it gives the noodles a nice, nutty flavor.

Typically, when you open a jar of sesame seed paste, you find a layer of oil floating on top of the paste. This simply means that the mixture has separated. Do not discard it as the oil keeps the paste moist; just remedy the situation by trying to stir it together. Myself, I prefer to empty the jar into a blender and let the machine do the mixing. After that, I spoon it back into the jar and before each use, stir the contents with a spoon.

Sesame paste can be found at most Chinese and other Asian groceries. I have also seen it stocked in the international section of supermarkets in my neighborhood. One great thing about this thick sauce is that it will keep indefinitely if kept sealed in the refrigerator. Be sure to always use a clean dry spoon when taking out the amount that you need; and after you do if you have trouble mixing it, use one to two tablespoons of cool tea to thin it just before use.

If you've never tried sesame paste or any of the sauces mentioned in previous articles, you are missing out on some wonderful flavors. They are all definitely worth trying. Since I started using them I have created many tasty new recipes and added a flavor boost to a good number of old favorites. All of them allow for lots of creativity in the kitchen. When you feel like experimenting with something different, Chinese sauces are definitely the way to go.

In this issue you will find some recipes using the sauces I discussed in Part II of this series. Now, as then, I have allowed time for some of your own experimenting. Look for sesame seed paste recipes in the March issue.
Eva Koveos was a research associate working for Good Housekeeping. At the moment she's taking a breather doing a dietetic internship and preparing to take the Registered Dietician's examination.

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