Open Sesame! This is the magical phrase that seems to work wonders. Is there anyone who does not know this expression from the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, one of the exciting stories of the Thousand and One Nights? The expression “Open Sesame Open” was first used in the French translation of the work by Antoine Galland in the 1700s. This expression might be due to an interesting feature of the sesame plant. Sesame is difficult to harvest, and the difficulty is because of the nature of the sesame plant, as soon as the sesame grains reach a level of sufficient maturity, the capsule that has the sesame seeds opens abruptly and the seeds are spilled all over. Of course, this is a natural necessity of nature for the plant to grow again as a seed, but this nature of the plant makes the timing very critical, the harvest needs to be done right before this stage. Otherwise, the seeds scatter around and the crop is wasted. If the harvest is done too early, the desired oiliness and, therefore, flavor cannot be obtained.

Well, sesame is a miracle itself, a sprinkle of sesame seeds can transform the taste of anything to a special taste. Here in Türkiye, sesame is right in our lives. Even though we don’t use it in cooking a lot except for baking, not a single day goes by without sesame. The ubiquitous “simit” the sesame studded bread rings, aka Turkish bagel is unthinkable without sesame. Although the simit, which is our daily companion, is also made without sesame in some regions, the sesame coated ones are our favorite. Sesame is also seen on other baked goods, either sweet or savory, and together with nigella seeds it adds a nutty dimension to the Ramadan pide, the pillowy soft flat bread, an essential taste of Ramadan days.

However, this is not the only way that sesame is in our lives. Sesame is ground to make tahin, aka tahini, which is another indispensable ingredient in many favorite tastes and dishes in Turkish cuisine, the foremost being the tahinli helva, the tahini halwa. Helva simply means sweet in Arabic, in Turkish language it is a name given to a range of sweet delights, but when one mentions helva alone, our minds go directly to the tahini version, a cheese-like block of chalky, flaky, sweet and nutty goodness. Interestingly sesame oil was also used in cooking in the past, especially for frying dough-based sweets, but with the advance of cheaper and neutral tasting sunflower oil, it vanished from our kitchens.

Simit (Turkish bagel)

The sesame harvest has just finished. The quality of Turkish sesame is highly esteemed, especially by the Japanese, who buy a whopping 75 percent of the whole crop. Although we use sesame a lot, its cultivation in our country is gradually decreasing, and imported sesame species dominate the market. Unfortunately, the local sesame growers are not very keen on growing more, and the annual yield is getting smaller every year. As mentioned above, the sesame harvest is very labor consuming and needs great attention on when to harvest. Plus, there is an influx of cheaper African and Indian sesame in the market and the local produce struggles to compete with prices, especially considering the cost of labor. It is a sad situation as the sesame has a very old tradition in Anatolia throughout history. The sesame of the Finike region, ancient Phoenix, was highly sought-after in the markets of Athens and considered valuable. Today, the so called Manavgat Golden Sesame, is our treasure worth gold, which also has a Geographical Indication label, and another famed sesame comes from Fethiye, Gökova.

Sesame and tahini

Manavgat Golden Sesame is really special with its golden yellow color and superior flavor due to its high oil content. As early as the 1450s, the taxes collected from the local “tahinhane” the tahini press places, were registered in the Manavgat tax records. Sesame is grown in different parts of Türkiye, such as Adana and Manisa. Today, when the harvest is still going on, one can easily see Japanese buyers scouring the sesame fields to find the best of the best. Mustafa Fettahoğlu, a sesame and tahini producer from Manavgat, compares different regional sesame seeds with imported ones and tries to understand the difference in the quality of our domestic sesame.

Interestingly, while we sell 75 percent of the sesame we produce abroad, mainly to Japan, paradoxically we buy 75 percent of the sesame we consume from Africa or India. This is a really difficult contradiction to understand. The local product is better quality, but we do not use it ourselves and we settle with a more affordable option, changing the traditional taste of our sesame products and tahini to something different from the past. In the local market, sesame is not classified according to the region or country where it is grown. It is sold as sesame fit for either pastry, biscuit, simit or tahini.

Küncülü helva (halva)

This makes it quite difficult to understand the country of origin. Obviously, tahini was made with local sesame in the past, probably it was denser and with more oil content, but today our taste may have changed as we are used to those made with imported seeds. Among the imported sesame seeds, those from the Humera region in Ethiopia are the most preferred ones. Sesame from India is usually very fine grained and fit for biscuits. It may also be the right one for the sweet sesame crisps of Gaziantep, known as küncülü helva, interestingly in India, there is similar confection almost exactly the same as ours. Let us remember that sesame is “susam” in Turkish; while in many regions it is also called “küncü.” Our cuisine is all sesame sprinkled in one way or another, but to sustain the local crop one needs to hope for magic to happen, the need for sustainable agricultural politics, and it won’t be easy as uttering the magical phrase: Open sesame!

By Aylin Öney Tan,


About İsmail Uğural

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