I’ve somehow fallen into the habit of watching the local news, though I generally refer to it as the local “blah blah” since it consists mostly of fleeting hysteria designed to trick you into tuning in again the following evening. Last week, there was a scary report on the dramatic rise of sesame allergies, which have recently become quite common. To drive home the idea of how absolutely horrifying this was, a reporter stood in a supermarket, holding up items containing sesame. There were hamburger buns, sesame oil, and “other Asian ingredients,” and then they gave up.
As usual, the whole thing seemed to get a bit ahead of itself, as if the news were: “Sesame Seeds Poisonous to Humans! Snuck Into All Kinds of Food!” rather than the reality, which would be more like: “Sesame Allergy Increasingly Common. Avoid Eating Sesame If You’re Allergic.” But the supermarket demo got me thinking about all the less obvious, truly delicious forms the allergic would be missing out on. Though I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, I can never pass up a sesame-based dessert. Intrinsically savory, sesame is complimented but not overpowered by sugar. The deep, nutty taste is actually enhanced in sweet preparations, making for more complex candies, cakes, and so on.
I discovered halvah (a Mediterranean confection made from ground sesame seeds) while working at Russ & Daughters, New York’s best smoked fish shop. To slice the salmon paper-thin, a person has to practice tirelessly. A novice, I was assigned to the candy counter instead. Expecting to long exclusively for the bagels and whitefish on the other side of the store, I was surprised to find I couldn’t control myself around the halvah, which was fresh and flaky, sweet but also slightly salty, and melted in one’s mouth. The chocolate marbled variety is a favorite, but none can be scoffed at: chocolate-coated, pistachio-dotted, or pure, pristine sesame.
Many people only think of the complimentary orange wedges and fortune cookies, but Chinatown has some amazing desserts, like the many tong shui (roughly “sweet soup”) at Sweet ‘n’ Tart Café. Like so many odd-sounding dishes, these carry promises of miraculous medical benefits, but if it does nothing but make me fat, I’ll continue to order my favorite of them, the “black sesame paste with Sau Woo.” It’s a viscous, hot black soup, totally opaque. I don’t know what Sau Woo is, but what one tastes is intense sesame. A less strange and almost as delicious example is a sesame-encrusted fried round donut from a bakery like Taipan.
I used to daydream about what kind of ice cream I would invent if I were able to devote my time to it, and my most drool-inducing fantasy was to somehow capture these sesame sweets in a cold, creamy form. Now, those dreams have been realized—Il Laboratorio del Gelato makes toasted sesame and black sesame gelato. Bless them.