Japan’s Deep-Rooted Love for All Things Sesame

Nov 29, 2020 | CULTURE, Japan, NEWS, TASTE

Japan is the largest consumer of Sesame in the world, with around 160,000 tons of import from Latin American annually. And for good reason: Sesame is one of the key ingredients in Japanese cuisine adding not only to the dish’s taste value but also nutritional content.

Japanese cuisine is all about Umami and strong flavors from ingredients like soy sauce or miso. However, there is an important and mostly overlooked ingredient that makes all the difference – sesame. Its paste, seed, and oil are some of the most versatile components of traditional and modern Japanese cuisine.

Types of Sesame

There are different types of sesame or Goma in Japanese: white, black, and golden. These three types are all important in Japanese cooking, mostly for its taste and not for its nutritional quality despite being full of minerals and fibers.

White sesame

Of all types of sesame, the white variant is the most popular and has the subtlest taste. This type of sesame is mostly cooked with tofu, or used for Japanese salad dressings because of its lightness. The seeds also add an amazing visual impact without changing the taste of dishes.  White sesame are often toasted for aroma.

White Sesame

Black sesame

Black sesame has a very unique nutty taste, so it’s mostly used for rice porridge seasoning, as well as marinades. This sesame can also be crushed to make a delicious paste that is commonly used in Japanese cuisine as decoration for sandwiches, soups, and salads. Additionally, black sesame is also very versatile and can be used to make yummy desserts like cookies, pudding, and ice cream. 

Black Sesame Pudding

Golden sesame

Golden sesame is the least popular type of sesame. However, that doesn’t make it any less important. Golden sesame is mostly used for Furikake, which is a mixture of nori seaweed and sesame that is used to season rice. 

Golden sesame can also be mixed with black sesame after being roasted, then crushed to make Goma Shio, a type of condiment. Goma Ghio is very common in Japanese restaurants and ramen shops and is usually placed together with soy sauce and ginger.


The Many Health Benefits of Sesame

Over 5,000 years ago, sesame seeds were cultivated in India, and it eventually spread to East Asian countries and the Middle East. Sesame was the first-ever crop to be pressed for oil, and since then, it has become a key ingredient in Japanese recipes. Nothing can quite match its distinct flavor and aroma. However, that’s not all it offers. 

Sesame is immensely healthy. It is rich in magnesium and calcium, and also contains sesamin and sesamol – compounds that can only be found in it. These exclusive natural preservatives do wonders to reduce illnesses like cancer. This is why it’s considered a superfood by many. 

Moreover, sesame is also rich in copper. This makes it a must-have for people experiencing arthritis and other forms of pain. It is also rich in zinc, and people believe it can help improve digestion, as well as the health of other organs in the body. 

Sesame is also used in Ayurveda. Pills with sesamin are commonly taken in Japan to get rid of hangover symptoms. Sesame powder is also an awesome addition to smoothies if you’re looking for an extra serving of fiber, good fats, and protein. 

The Versatility of Sesame Oil

Can you imagine Japanese cuisine without sesame oil? This amazing ingredient is one of the major foundations of hundreds of recipes like soups, noodles, and dressings. Some types of sesame oil has a very high smoke point, which makes it ideal for stir-fries and fried dishes such as tempura. If you haven’t cooked with this oil in your kitchen before, you’re truly missing out.   

There are various kinds of sesame oil used in Japanese cuisine. First is the light oil, which has a very subtle flavor that won’t overpower your other ingredients. Second is the toasted oil which is also referred to as dark sesame oil. Since it is made with toasted seeds, it has a stronger flavor and aroma. This makes it the perfect addition to cold and hot dishes, and as a drizzle for food. Unlike light sesame oil, toasted sesame oil should only be used with low to medium heat or no heat at all. 

Keep in mind that cooking with sesame oil can be very expensive so it is mostly used as a seasoning, marinade, and sauce. Its wonderful aroma and nutty flavor perfectly balance the sharpness of other Japanese ingredients like soy sauce and rice vinegar. Just like other ingredients, one should pay attention when adding sesame oil to any dish since it can easily overpower other ingredients.

Case Study: Iwai Sesame Oil

Tetsutaro Iwai, the president of Iwai Sesame oil is holding on to a tradition that traces back to 160 years. The Yokohama-based brand prides itself in producing one of the best sesame oils in Japan. 

The brand was founded in 1857 by Toshichi Iwai, and it initially began as a small family business producing peanut oil and vegetable oil, among others. It didn’t take long until the brand started to focus on sesame, just in time when Japan paid more attention to its capabilities as a health booster. 

Iwai half-jokes that sesame oil was even used by Cleopatra as a face pack. If this is indeed true, it won’t come as a surprise since sesame is commonly used as a massage oil and for beauty treatments. 

Making sesame oil is a very complicated process that requires dedication, and experience. Thankfully, these have all been mastered by the brand that’s to nearly two centuries of practice. Iwai’s sesame oil is more expensive compared to its competitors so unfortunately, it doesn’t hold the largest share of sesame oil in Japan. However, its product quality remains unquestionable and is a leading choice for customers who value quality over price.

Unique Sesame Products and Foods

If you think you’ve already maximized the potential of sesame oil, you thought wrong, There are hundreds of delicious savory foods and desserts made with this ingredient. We’re gathered some for you. 

Sesame Cheesecake

Kadoya oil, one of the most recognized brands of sesame oil in Japan, recently collaborated with Kojimaya Dairy Confectionary to make two varieties of sesame cheesecake that will be available in selected stores, supermarkets, and other service areas in Kanto. The first type of cheesecake is topped with a mouth-water black sesame sauce with a smooth taste. The other cheesecake is made with crushed sesame cookies that highlight the mellow aroma and texture of sesame. 

Sesame ice cream black sesame cheesecake

Sesame Mochi

For home cooks who want to explore sesame, they can try to make sesame mochi. It is one of the healthiest desserts you can serve your kids and family. This recipe is recommended for advanced cooks since the sticky and stretchy dough can be challenging to work with. 

To start, toast black sesame seeds in a pan for around 5 minutes. Then, blend it in a food processor until it forms a thick paste. When this is done, you can mix it with the glutinous rice flour and water over medium heat until the sticky dough comes together. When shaping the mochi, add more cornflour to make sure it doesn’t stick. 

Sesame Ice Cream

Although not popular in the States yet,  Sesame Ice Cream has been around in Japan for over a decade, you can find this decadent dessert everywhere in Japan.  Sesame is ground and churns into ice cream, the more sesame seeds used, the more intense the flavor, one ice cream shop claims they used as much as 9000 seeds!

What’s Next for Sesame Oil in Japan?

Despite its importance in the country, Japan hardly produces sesame. In fact, 99.99 percent of the country’s sesame is imported from Africa, Myanmar, and other countries. Perhaps if people around the world knew more about the benefits and distinct flavor of sesame, the world can finally catch up with Japan. But whether or not sesame will increase in popularity, one thing remains true – it is, and always will be, the underrated star of Japanese cuisine.