Best time to invest in high-quality sesame oil

Years ago, a non-Asian chef divulged a “secret” for preparing “Asian food”: toasted sesame oil. He wasn’t entirely incorrect. If soy sauce, in all of its forms, is the salt of East Asian pantry staples, toasted sesame oil may be the black pepper. The aromatic, amber-colored oil is an essential component in creating a wide range of savoury dishes—try it drizzled over steamed entire fish, marinating into poultry, dressing cucumbers, and finishing any stir-fry or noodles you can concoct. And, while it may be a shortcut for recipe developers trying to label a meal “Asian,” toasted sesame oil has a transformative impact, infusing foods with an unmistakable nutty scent.

However, if you go to any grocery shop, even the huge American Asian supermarket, you’ll only find a few selections for toasted sesame oil. This is unfortunate because there is a wide range of sesame oil quality and type due to differences in processing processes, seed types and origins, and toasting levels. High-quality sesame oil, on the other hand, is unrivalled in the eyes of some chefs.

“Although cheaply produced sesame oil has a powerful aroma, it has a bitter flavour and the scent fades fast.” According to Hooni Kim, chef-owner of the Michelin-starred Danji and author of My Korea, “well prepared sesame oil will have a delightful, sweet, and nutty aroma that comes from the toasted sesame seeds, with none of the harshness.”

Kim says he’s heard of some companies that merely add artificial smoke flavour to untoasted white sesame seed oil, or that roast the seeds using infrared technology, which doesn’t produce the same flavour as more labor-intensive ways. Traditional toasted sesame oil is made in small batches to guarantee that the seeds toast evenly—a highly skilled method that only a few producers still use today. As a result, Kim believes that spending on a bottle of sesame oil that costs more than $30, as Nonghyup does, is well worth it. However, if you can’t get it, he claims that Kadoya and Sempio create acceptable mass-produced oils.

Grace Huang and her family have been producing sesame and peanut oil at Dong He, their 100-year-old mill in Chiayi, Taiwan, the slow and hard way. Huang is a fourth-generation manager of the company, which her great-grandparents bought from a Japanese corporation during Japan’s rule of Taiwan. They use the same mechanical technique that has been in place since the early 1900s, when it was deemed highly advanced, involving wheels of ground seeds that are stacked together and squeezed.

According to Huang, larger companies frequently employ a chemical solvent in the extraction process, and these mass-produced oils are heated to 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) in the process, which reduces the flavour as well as the nutritional quality of the resulting oil. At Dong He, the seeds are pressed slowly at a low temperature to preserve their natural aroma—a technique similar to making cold-pressed olive oil, only the sesame seeds are roasted over a wood fire for a variable period of time before being pressed.

“The longer you roast the seeds, the more experience you’ll have and the better you’ll be at determining when it’s ready to be squeezed into oil,” Huang adds.

Whereas larger, modern producers utilise gas ovens to roast sesame seeds, the wood fire adds nuance: “If you grill with charcoal, it tastes different than it does with gas… “It’s kind of the same thing,” Huang explains.

Then there’s the matter of the type of sesame seeds utilised. Dong He makes roasted white sesame seed oil as well as toasted black sesame seed oil. According to Huang, black sesame seed oil has a richer, stronger flavour, making it ideal for heavier meals like stews and braises, but white sesame seed oil is lighter and smoother, making it ideal for salads, dipping sauces, or sprinkling on top of soups. In traditional Chinese medicine, black sesame oil is more strongly associated with warming energy, and is used in dishes supposed to be restorative during the winter, such as Three Cup Chicken, or for women who have recently given birth, such as the Taiwanese stew Ma You Ji, or Sesame Oil Chicken Soup.

According to Huang, the flavour of black sesame seeds varies depending on where they are cultivated; Dong He has been sourcing black sesame seeds from the same farmers in Taiwan and Thailand for decades, and they sell one bottle of single-origin Taiwanese black sesame oil. The white sesame seeds they buy are all from Thailand because there are no farms growing them in Taiwan—this, like cold-pressing the oil, is just not as profitable as it once was.

Sesame seed oil was once a far more prevalent cooking oil not only in Taiwan, but all throughout the world. It is thought to be one of the earliest cooking seed oils, with evidence of use in ancient Egypt—the annual plant originated in Africa. The resultant oil from pressing sesame seeds is rich in vitamin E and B vitamins, among other elements, and is composed of 50% fat. Sesame seeds migrated from Africa to Europe and Asia, where they have been grown for thousands of years. They subsequently made their way to the Americas via the slave trade, where a type of sesame known as benne was grown in slave gardens as a key source of protein and nutrition.

In East Asia, the introduction of Buddhism around 50 CE is typically attributed with hastening the usage of sesame seeds and oil for culinary purposes—it provided as a critical source of protein and nutrition for individuals adhering to a vegetarian diet. According to Marc Matsumoto, the culinary inventor of No Recipes, sesame oil was also used for lamps and, much later, to prepare fried meals in Japan. Tempura, or battered and fried vegetables, were introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century, and were cooked mostly with sesame oil.

“It’s worth mentioning that historically, sesame oil was derived from lightly roasted sesame seeds,” Matsumoto explains. As a result, unlike more darkly roasted sesame oils, flavour was not a major consideration. Because all-purpose cooking oil is now generated from other crops, dark roasted sesame oil is far more widespread in Japan than lighter kinds.

Sesame seed oil is often prepared using untoasted seeds in European and American cuisines, resulting in a more neutral-tasting, all-purpose cooking oil. The tint, which is pale yellow, distinguishes it from Asian toasted sesame seed oils. However, the seeds themselves—dotting rolls, bagels, or cookies—might be more popular these days than the oil.

In the United States, a rotating cast of cheaper and cheaper commodity crop–based oils, such as corn, soybean, sunflower, safflower, and canola (made from rapeseed), has made it less profitable to produce and thus more difficult to find other cooking oils that were once more common, such as peanut and sesame. According to Kristin Lawless, a certified nutrition educator and author of Formerly Known as Food: How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture, these industrially produced oils have had a negative impact on our health, not because of the type of plant used, but because of the high-heat processing methods that cause the oils to become oxidised.

But olive oil has been the largest oil storey of the last half-century. The Mediterranean oil is valued for its health benefits, which include antioxidants and heart-healthy lipids. It’s also highly valued for its flavour, which varies widely. A bottle of olive oil can cost nearly as much as a bottle of wine, yet the aisles of the average American supermarket are brimming with possibilities. There are some top-shelf, tasty olive oils that you wouldn’t use for cooking but rather for drizzling to keep their full flavour, and then there are those that you’d use for cooking just about anything, Mediterranean cuisine or not.

Sesame oil may be viewed of in the same way—at least in terms of a more open-minded future. Its full range is becoming more widely available in the United States, thanks to Asian pantry goods e-commerce retailers like Yun Hai, which imports Dong He oils, and Umami Insider, which stocks sesame oil from Kuki, a manufacturer in Yokkaichi, Japan, that has been producing oils using the same traditional methods since 1886.

You won’t find the terms “cold-pressed” on many bottles, but you’d be hard pressed to find an olive oil that isn’t “extra virgin,” which means the oil was extracted without the use of chemicals or high heat. When it comes to the healthfulness and flavour of mechanically cold-pressed oils vs those created using speedier, less conventional processes, the same principles apply to both types of oil. Kuki has made steps to certify some of its manufacturing standards, gaining the worldwide food safety and management certifications ISO 22000 and FSSC 2200.


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