best natural foods

Cooking with sesame oil

Asians have been cooking with sesame oil for thousands of years, possibly as long as Europeans around the Mediterranean have been cooking with olive oil.

Historical records show that sesame was one of the earliest crops cultivated for oil production and that sesame oil was exported from India to Mesopotamia (today Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria) as long ago as 2500 BC.

Yet the health benefits of cooking with sesame oil are seldom discussed. While a lot of research has been done on the health benefits of olive oil, sesame oil is not studied as much. As a result, few health writers mention sesame oil as one of the healthy cooking oils.

This is not because sesame oil is inferior to olive oil. We don't really know because not a lot of scientific studies have been done. It is merely due to a cultural bias, since sesame oil is not a part of the Western diet and most scientiic and health literature (at least those in English) comes from Western countries.

Yin and yang of sesame oil

People in Europe and America began cooking with sesame oil only in recent decades, due mainly to the influence of macrobiotics, which highly recommends cooking with sesame oil

So let's start with the macrobiotic understanding of why cooking with sesame oil is preferred.

In macrobiotics, foods (and other factors) are understood in terms of yin and yang, which describe the quality of their energy. Yin is "expanding energy" and yang is "contracting energy".

Oil, in general, has yin or "expanding energy". You can see this from the way oil spreads outwards or "expands" when it is poured. In fact, oil spreads out even more widely than water. In contrast, salt will cause foods to shrink and harden, as in the case of salted vegetables and meat. So salt is said to have more yang or "contracting energy".

The objective in macrobiotics is always to aim for balance and avoid extremes. Since oil is yin, the macrobiotic recommendation is to use an oil that is less yin compared to other cooking oils.

Sesame oil meets this criteria because the oil is derived from a seed that is very small and compact, that is, a yang or "contracted" seed. Sesame oil is considered less yin / more balanced compared with, say, olive, palm or avocado oils that are extracted from the soft pulp of fruits.

Monounsatured fats

Not everyone can accept this yin and yang explanation, of course. In terms of the more usual nutritional way of looking at food, sesame oil is high in both monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, comprising roughly 40 percent of each.

Most articles about sesame oil classify it as a polyunsaturated fat. But cooking with sesame oil is actually closer to cooking with monounsaturated fats, because sesame oil has a relatively high smoke point (350ºF for unrefined sesame oil, 450ºF foir semi-refined sesame oil) and can tolerate high cooking temperatures. Unrefined polyunsaturated oils have smoke points of around 200ºF.

Click here for a fuller nutritional discussion about the benefits of cooking with sesame oil.

Raw vs toasted sesame oil

When cooking with sesame oil, bear in mind that there are two types:

Toasted sesame oil has a nice, but strong flavor and will greatly affect the taste of food. In fact, it is used by the Chinese largely for this purpose - to impart its special flavour. Because of this, it is used mainly for special dishes.

At the same time, the Chinese consider toasted sesame oil to be "heaty", meaning its effect is to warm or heat up the body. Ginger and Korean ginseng (but not American ginseng) are said to have similar "heaty" properties.

So again because of this, toasted sesame oil is used sparingly. Often, it is used just as a flavouring oil, the way premium olive oils are dribbled over food, rather than used as the main cooking oil.

The flavour of toasted sesame oil can vary quote greatly among brands.

As a Chinese, I had been acquainted with the aroma of toasted sesame oil since young. Yet I never knew how good it could be until I tried the Mitoku brand toasted sesame oil from Japan, which is a macrobiotic-quality oil made from organic sesame seeds and using traditional production methods. It was so much better that I have since stopped buying the cheap Chinese or Singapore brands.

Unfortunately, the Mitoku toasted sesame oil is also somewhat costly. I have since found a few other mid-price Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese brands of toasted sesame oil that are quite good too. Sorry the brand names are in Japanese / Korean / Chinese characters.

Raw sesame oil is more neutral and so can be used for general cooking. Thi is also the form of sesame oil used widely in South India, where it is known as gingelly oil - which means "good oil" - or til oil. Raw sesame oil has a higher smoke point, making it suitable for deep frying and other forms of high heat cooking.

The difference in smoke points between raw and toasted sesame oil is not great. And while toasted sesame oil is not often used for deep-frying, it is routinely used in Chinese-style stir fries, which involves quite high temperatures - especially in a restaurant kitchen.

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