April 17, 2014

Zhang Qian 张骞 and Sesame Seeds

Perhaps the first time you heard the word Sesame, was when you read about Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. "Open Sesame" became a catch word during our childhood in fact and by saying that in English, we could get a lot of treats! We played games too and used the password to get doors opened.

Of course in those days I did not know anything about Sesame Oil or Muai Yiu, the Chinese name for Sesame Oil. I only know "how to eat". Not so clever.


But, do you know that the small sesame seed was connected to the Zhang Clan?

“The Chinese, wishing to declare war on the Xiung-nu [and] to wipe them out...desired to establish contact with the Yueh-chih; but the road to them led through the territory of the Xiung-nu. The emperor called for volunteers.” -Sima Qian, Records of the Historian
 Chang-Ch'ien (or Zhang Qian) was quick to volunteer and soon he was  dispatched by the emperor Wu-ti to establish relations with a Central Asian tribal group that spoke an Indo-European language.  however he was inprisoned by the Great Khan and he managed to return to China only after 13 years. He brought back his Xiongnu wife and son to China. His travels were not a failure but an achievement.

He opened up the Silk Route, introduced the great horses of the Steppes to China, brought grapes and alfafa to China.

But most importantly, he brought back the incredible Sesame Plant.
The history of Sesame is very rich and interesting. The Hindi word for oil (Tel (तेल)) is also derived from sesame oil (from Sanskrit Taila (तैल), which means obtained from Tila (तिल) Sesame).The Telugu word for sesame seeds is నువ్వులు. Prior to 600 BC, the Assyrians used sesame oil as a food, salve, and medication, primarily by the rich, as the difficulty of obtaining it made it expensive. Hindus used it in votive lamps and considered the oil sacred.
 The sesame plant is not very tall. It is an annual growing to up to 3 feet tall. The leaves are dark green, roughly about 5 inches long. The flowers are pale pink and about an inch long. One plant can only yield 1 Tablespoon of seeds only!!

Interesting the seeds vary in colour : red, black, brown, or creamy white seeds.

The Egyptians and Persians of Biblical times ground it into a kind of flour, from which they made bread. The Romans crushed the seed and used it like butter for a spread on bread.

The special paste of sesame seeds is called TAHINI.

Halva is a special sweet candy made from sesame seed paste.

The Foochows use sesame oil for many dishes. Most importantly for cooking of chicken for new mother's confinement  diet and also for the famous South East Asian Chicken Rice.

I took this photo in Fuzhou during a very awesome food tasting session. Fuzhou Kompia burgers, meat and chives.
Photo by Steve Ling: Sibu Kompia
My favourite source of toasted sesame seeds is the Kompia with lots of them. The Foochow Bridal Biscuits or Leh Pian is only good if there are lots of sesame seeds on them!! Or the Mang Chiew Gor with lots of sesame seeds.

Today lots of salads use toasted sesame seeds as garnish as well as to give them a crunchy and nutty taste. There is nothing better than biting into sesame seeds when one eats a good cold jelly fish salad with a Thai sauce.


We have to thank our Zhang Ancestor, Zhang Qian for his courageous journey (138 BC) into the West and for bringing back the awesome Sesame plant!!