After all these years of having grandmas scream down our ears that seasonal, local produce is good for the body, we now have bomb-charging nutritionists and new-age food specialists telling us how ghee, carbs and natural sugars will, eventually, do us good and how it makes sense to watch the food miles. As it turns out, however, we need more than a little motherly arm twisting to eat sensibly.
A decade or so ago, people around me were turning up their noses at traditional foods—too rich, too fattening. And although I am far from fit to make such remarks, I join their club every Diwali, eyeing every little syrup-drenched, ghee-laden morsel with disdain. But there’s something about Sankranti goodies—jaggery-based laddoos and chikkis, North Indian rewris and gajak—that make me go weak in the knees.
Come January, my mum and grandmother get together and start planning the elaborate, almost sacred ritual of making gulachi poli. They’re only made once a year, and entire afternoons are spent in the kitchen, slaving away. These are super thin, short yet chewy chapattis filled with the season’s fresh jaggery, bruised sesame seeds, and a hint of cardamom. They are roasted to a golden brown, folded, and stored until Sankranti day, when they are eaten with a generous dollop of good, homemade ghee. On a cold January day, these polis are perfect to warm your soul and your body.
Apart from those, there are the usual suspects—hard and chewy sesame seed and jaggery laddoos with roasted gram and peanuts, and soft, crumbly sesame and coconut squares or vadis. The Punjabi grocery supplies store in town brings back rewris, til paapdi, and various kinds of gajak from the North every winter, and these delectable gems disappear just as suddenly as they appear. This is the stuff I have grown up on. People my age (or a few decades younger), however, haven’t a clue how full of warmth these are—and I am not just talking about their medicinal properties. While they stuff their pockets (and their faces) with energy bars, I want to thrust a square of nutty, crisp sesame seed chikki under their noses and tell them how the tiny seeds will not just satisfy temporary hunger but also take care of their bones and their digestive systems in the long run; that they’ll make their skins smoother and their hair glossier without having to slather unpronounceable chemicals on. And Indian grandmas aren’t the only ones who think so! Sesame seeds are also used extensively in oriental and middle-eastern cuisines as well as in bakery and confectionery.
Although the humble til is an oil seed, it contributes mono unsaturated fatty acids, which help in the regulation of cholesterol by lowering the bad and increasing the good cholesterol. Sesame seeds are also rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and are an excellent source of dietary fibre—that checks all the boxes in our current vocabulary. Now if only we’d accept the little bit of jaggery that comes with it and allow ourselves a bit of seasonal indulgence.
But wielding squares of chikki at unsuspecting people is probably not the sanest thing to do—not unless I really want them to think I’m a little crazy. Perhaps the answer lies in repackaging—that standard, new-age solution to everything. I make these cookies using unpolished sesame seeds, and the nuttiness of the sesame seeds is balanced well with the depth of the jaggery-like brown or raw sugar. The vanilla and lemon zest make the cookie appealing to palates of all ages (my 2 year old wolfs them down with much enthusiasm) and they make for excellent gifts and handbag snacks. They’re quite versatile, too—add a little cocoa and coffee powder for an adult variation or decorate with a little icing for the kiddie lunchbox. The cookie dough freezes well up to a month, so you can wrap the leftover dough in plastic wrap and slice off cookie roundels whenever you feel like a hot, freshly baked cookie.
Sesame Cookies (Makes about 25 cookies)
- 1 cup roasted, unpolished sesame seeds
- ¾ cup plain flour or maida (or ½ cup whole wheat flour + ¼ cup powdered breakfast oats)
- ¾ cup packed soft brown sugar or raw sugar
- 1 egg
- ¼ tsp. baking powder
- 3 tbsp. butter
- 1 tbsp. tahini paste
- ½ tsp. vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean, slit and the seeds scraped out
- Grated zest of one lemon (you can also add other natural flavorings such as a pinch of cinnamon powder or ground ginger)
- Beat the butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl.
- Add the egg, tahini paste, lemon zest and vanilla, and beat again.
- Tip in the flour and sesame seeds and mix well using a spatula.
- Pinch off betel nut sized balls and place them about an inch apart on baking sheet lined with parchment. Flatten with a knife.
- Bake at 170 degrees centigrade for about 10 minutes until the bottoms are a golden. They will seem soft but will harden upon cooling.
- Cool on a wire rack until they harden. Store in an airtight jar.
Other ways to incorporate sesame seeds in your diet:
- Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on salads and steamed vegetables
- Add sesame seeds to paratha/thepla/bread dough
- Use tahini as a dipping sauce for grilled appetizers
- Use powdered sesame seeds as a thickener for Indian vegetable preparations
- Use toasted sesame oil and tahini in salad dressings