In the winter of 1974, newly arrived in Vancouver, B.C., I worked as a temp, barely covering my expenses. And with no sense of my professional future, I never worked long enough in any one location to bond with my coworkers. The short, gray winter days didn't help, either.
After work, walking in the dark to the bus stop, I'd stop at a corner store and buy a candy bar. One day, the Sikh owner, recognizing a familiar customer, said, "Have you tried this? It's sesame," and handed me what looked like a wafer wrapped in plastic. One taste of that chewy, nutty sweetness and I was hooked, the flavor transporting me far away from my worries.
Sesame, the oldest known oilseed plant in history, has been cultivated for more than 4,000 years. Originally from Indonesia, sesame seeds made their way to China, Egypt, India and Japan. Oil extraction from sesame seed dates back to 900-700 B.C. in eastern Turkey and it's been used in China for at least 2,000 years. Researchers believe it was brought into 17th century colonial America by enslaved West Africans.
That transcendent bar was my first stop on my sesame journey. About five years later, having returned to the U.S. and living in Seattle, I tasted a salad dressing of unknown ingredients at Julia's 14 Carrot Café, an iconic restaurant which still stands today. Julia's was famous for its eponymous carrot cake and breakfasts, but I went there just for the salad dressing — long before I had heard of its main ingredient, tahini. Now that dressing is marketed as Goddess.
Traveling south in the '90s, I came upon another sesame dish at a funky diner on El Camino Real in Mountain View. My husband, Barry, and I liked Best Bite for its food, its generous, comfy booths and its friendly Lebanese owner. Frank would greet us in his black tailored pants and long-sleeved white shirt, waving us over to one of the booths with a dramatic flourish, which always made us laugh, since the restaurant was usually empty. I would always order falafel and hummus, rich with tahini, which was soon to become a household word and a spread you could buy at any mainstream supermarket.
Then, in the year 2000, on a trip to Turkey, I first tasted halvah, the popular Middle Eastern confection consisting of tahini and sugar or honey, sometimes flavored with cocoa powder, pistachio or vanilla. In the eastern city of Trabzon, near the border with Georgia, we discovered the only dedicated halvah café I've ever seen, a brilliant concept I wanted to duplicate in the states. As we entered the cafe, we would ogle the enormous pie-shaped halvah on the counter. After the server cut us a couple of wedges, we'd perch on stools at low tables letting the crumbly halvah dissolve in our mouths as we sipped Turkish tea in fluted glass tumblers. The café is still there — I checked online. I'd go back to Trabzon in a heartbeat just to visit it. But you don't have to travel all the way to the Middle East to find halvah — you can buy it at the Co-op, Eureka Natural Foods or Wildberries Market.
I would never have enjoyed my latest adventure with sesame, a dry Japanese condiment called gomashio, had I not been a participant in silent retreats, where it's usually available. If you've ever been to a meditation retreat, you know that food becomes critically important. After all, there's nothing much around — just you, the other people (whom you're not supposed to look at), and of course, your mind. When other stimuli are muted, the mind, or at least my mind, often dreams of food. Sweet food, salty food, sticky food, crunchy food, creamy food, food food. At the retreats, when the bell would ring, signaling it was time for lunch or dinner, I could barely sit still on my cushion or solemnly stand in line at the food table to wait my turn. I'd always sprinkle gomashio on my brown rice and salad.
The dry mixture is not only delicious, it's ridiculously simple, consisting only of toasted sesame seeds, whole or ground, and salt. Traditionally, it's made with a suribachi, a fine-grooved ceramic mortar and a wooden pestle. Any 8 year old could prepare it. No special mortar? All you need is a blender. It's great just as a snack, or you can add it to rice, pasta, salad, stir-fries or tofu. A spoonful or two of gomashio makes any dish taste better.
1 cup sesame seeds, black or white
Salt to taste
Over medium heat, brown the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan, stirring and shaking the pan to keep the seeds turning. Watch carefully so they don't burn (as I have done more than once). They're done when they are fragrant and, if using white seeds, turn golden. It should take about 3 minutes. Let cool.
Add 1 tablespoon of salt to start and pour the seeds into a blender or food processor. Pulse until the mixture is the consistency of sand. Adjust the salt as needed and pulse again to blend.
Louisa Rogers (she/her) is a leadership coach and writer who lives in Eureka and Guanajuato, Mexico.