Sesame, one of the most important flavors and components of Japanese cuisine, can be used in many ways. Sesame seeds, sesame oil, and sesame paste can garnish, season, and create many delicious Japanese dishes.

When you think of some of the distinctive flavors of Japanese cuisine, soy sauce immediately comes to mind, and miso is probably a close second. There are others, of course, such as matcha, adzuki, dashi, and yuzu. But just as important and often overlooked is sesame, which is used in Japanese cooking in a number of ways.

Different Types of Seeds

Japan consumes more sesame than any other country in the world, but it isn’t just the white ones you commonly see atop rolls and bagels. There are actually three types, and all three are popular in Japanese cooking quite extensively.

White Sesame

This is by far the most popular of the three types in Japanese cuisines, and its flavor is also the subtlest. It is most often used in salad dressing and as a garnish for many dishes.

Black Sesame

The flavor of these small black seeds is much more distinctive and nutty. You often find these kinds in marinades, as a garnish, or crushed to make a flavorful paste. People also use this kind to make several desserts, cookies, ice cream, and other confectioneries.

Golden Sesame

These seeds are primarily used as a component of furikake, a seasoning comprised of nori seaweed and other ingredients. Furikake’s main usage is to season white rice. However, the different variants of the seasoning can add distinctive flavors to many different dishes.

Additionally, both black and golden seeds are roasted and crushed and then mixed with salt to make a popular condiment called goma shio. You can use it to flavor ramen, but can also make delicious onigiri with it.

The Importance of Sesame in Japan

Sesame seeds were first cultivated in India over 5,000 years ago. It eventually spread to the Middle East and East Asian territories. It was also the first crop to be pressed for oil. Sesame oil has since become the base of many Japanese recipes, adding a distinctive aroma and flavor. If you try it to sauté some vegetables in place of olive oil, you’ll quickly discover its fragrant appeal!

Sesame is also quite healthy. It is rich in calcium and magnesium, and also contains two important compounds exclusive to sesame; sesamol and sesamin. These natural preservatives help to reduce the risk of various forms of cancer and other illnesses. The high abundance of minerals and cancer-fighting compounds have made these seeds a superfood.

As a Superfood

Another mineral found in sesame is copper, which helps to reduce pain and alleviate the symptoms of arthritis. They also contain iron and zinc, and the Chinese consider it to contribute to longevity, aid in digestion, and improve the health of major organs.

In Ayurveda, people use this superfood as a medicine. In Japan, sesamin is extracted from sesame and made into a pill that can help alleviate the symptoms from hangovers. Add a spoon of sesame powder to smoothies for an extra healthy kick of protein, good fats, and fiber.

Sesame Oil and Japanese Food

As mentioned above, sesame oil is highly prevalent in Japanese cuisines, and just like olive oil, there a few different kinds available for culinary use.

Light oil — this kind of oil is similar to canola or vegetable oil and is ideal for high-heat frying. It does have a distinctive flavor but is not overpowering.

Toasted oil — also called dark sesame oil, this oil is made with toasted sesame seeds and has a much stronger aroma and flavor. It can add rich flavor sparingly to hot and cold dishes, but should only be for low or medium-heat cooking. Try drizzling it over vegetables, stir-fries, or into soups.

Cold-pressed oil — made without any chemicals or heat, cold-pressed sesame oil is a premium sesame oil with rich, pure flavor.

You can also find blended sesame oils or spicy sesame oils for other intriguing flavor combinations.

Black Sesame Seeds in Desserts

Because black seeds can be sweetened and made into a paste, it is ideally suited for many types of desserts and confectionery in Japan. Whether as a filling for mochi or as a pudding, the dark, striking paste is attractive and tasty!

Black sesame ice cream is a common and refreshing treat in Japan, and you can purchase black sesame spread, much like purchasing peanut butter or Nutella in the United States. Try some on toast or use it to make your own unique Japanese desserts! You can also buy roasted or toasted seeds as well to use as garnishes for rice and other dishes.

Sesame Dressing

When you see a salad dressing referred to as Asian dressing, it typically means a sesame-based dressing. There are quite a few variations of dressing, some made with whole seeds and the addition of ginger. Other recipe includes ingredients like rice vinegar, sesame oil, and soy sauce.

Try this recipe for a delicious dressing that you can use on salads, pork or beef dishes, and steamed vegetables.