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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Roasted black sesame seeds (hei zhi ma)

Ever have a hard time getting fully awake in the morning? How about staying warm--are you the first person to reach for a jacket, trying to ward off a chill, when everyone else is opening windows and turning on fans? Do you notice nagging lower back pain that's worse with cold weather but responds well to massage? These are all pretty common complaints, but when they're all presenting together, they might point to a diagnosis of what Chinese medicine terms Kidney Yang deficiency. That's Kidney with a capital K--I don't want you to think there's anything wrong with your actual, anatomical kidney. I'm talking here about the Chinese medical concept of the energetics of that organ: your Kidney Yang can be conceptualized as the steam engine to the train that is you--the source of heat and active energy for your body. Some other signs of Kidney Yang vacuity can include diminished libido, fertility challenges, chilled feet and hands or cold lower back, water retention, general lassitude and a low appetite. A traditional Chinese medical practitioner's diagnosis of Kidney Yang vacuity corresponds, very loosely, to a Western medical practitioner's diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency.

Sesame seeds are one of the more effective dietary therapeutics for Kidney Yang vacuity. Black foods in general--black beans, black rice, nori (the seaweed that wraps around sushi), shiitake mushrooms-are all great Kidney tonics, and therefore black sesame seeds are the most Kidney-tonifying variety of sesame seeds and an extraordinarily directed Kidney Yang tonic.

Need more reasons to get excited over sesame seeds? They contain unique lignans that have been shown to lower cholesterol. They're an excellent source of calcium, copper, manganese, magnesium, selenium and lots of other valuable nutrients. A mixture of sesame seeds and rice contains all the amino acids present in a complete protein. And they're fabulous, beyond belief, on congee--I put a little sprinkling of them on my New Year's Day congee, and it looked so pretty, and I took a picture. And then I put a whole bunch more on. After basically avalanching my congee with little black seeds, it wasn't all that photogenic, but it was delicious. 


I like roasting sesame seeds to bring out their full, nutty, umami flavor and sprinkling them over my congee. I always get black ones, for the benefit to my Kidney yang, and also because they're pretty--but you can use any kind of sesame seeds you like best.

Here's the how-to:

1. Heat a dry, flat-bottomed pan, large enough to hold all the sesame seeds you want to roast, over medium heat on a stovetop until the pan is quite hot. It should be too hot to comfortably touch. 

2. Spread your sesame seeds over the bottom of the pan.


3. Toss them around almost constantly, as high as you dare. Try not to spill them all. The goal is to keep them moving so none of them get burned.

Woo-woo! Action shots!

4. You'll know you're done when the seeds smell nutty and fragrant. This might be as quickly as one minute, depending on how many seeds are in your pan and how hot you got it before putting them in.

5. When they're fragrant, immediately remove them from the pan to cool. The "immediately" part is critical, as sesame seeds' high oil content means they'll keep cooking after they're pulled away from heat.



That's all! You can store these in a tightly-closed jar in a cooler area (or your fridge; I like to keep mine on a shadier part of the counter) and sprinkle them on your congee to pretty it up...they're a flavorful, healthful, simple condiment; one of those things you didn't know you were missing till you've had them. In Japan, roasted black or white sesame seeds (iri goma) appear on supermarket condiment shelves, both on their own and in jars of furikake, another terrific topping/condiment that I'll post a recipe for later this week--promise!--or in gomashio, basically iri goma with salt.

Enjoy these on your congee, and if you find other applications for them, please share those with me!





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