Sometimes the biggest flavors are delivered in the smallest packages. Think the bitter kick of a Kalamata olive, the bite of a peppercorn, or the surge of sweetness from a ripe blueberry. When applied to South Carolina heirloom foods, this adage is perhaps best reflected in the benne seed. These diminutive pearls (pronounced "bennie") are similar to commercial sesame seed, but with big differences.
Benne seeds were introduced into our Southern food culture just as so many of our most integral heritage foods were - through the African slave trade. This Colonial-era crop was grown on the South Carolina sea islands, an area rich in culture and heritage. Not only did the slaves use the oil from cooked benne to flavor pots of rice, but they showed great industry by drying and pounding the benne seeds into flour. It was then incorporated into a wide variety of dishes: stews, soups, biscuits, breads and more.
If you've ever had the pleasure of nibbling cookies or other foods made with benne, you already appreciate its slightly sweet, nutty, buttery flavor contributions. For lots of folks, a walk through the Charleston City Market is not complete without a bag of sweet, crispy benne wafers to munch on while you shop. Two locally produced brands, Southern Sisters and Olde Colony Bakery, are easy to find in shops, grocery stores, markets and online so you can take home a tasty souvenir of your visit.
Though they don't have as much oil as sesame - 60 percent vs. benne's 45 percent, per Dr. David Shields, heirloom food expert and chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation - benne provided a less costly alternative to lard and imported olive oils during antebellum days.
There are many other qualities that distinguish post World War II sesame seeds from early 18th century benne crops. According to Shields, pods of benne simply "shatter" when ripe. Much like little bombs, they detonate and disperse seeds over a wide area. Ripening does not happen uniformly along the stalk, so harvesting often requires cutting and drying the plant. The seeds are then shaken out, either into a bag or onto a cloth. Another difference: Today's sesame tends to be a bit more bitter than the heirloom benne.
Traditional Lowcountry cooks have long been enjoying benne dishes on their dinner tables. In the iconic cookbook, "Charleston Receipts," benne is an essential ingredient in biscuits, brittle, canapes, candy, cookies, oyster stew and, of course, wafers.
Relearning the role of benne in Southern cooking is an important undertaking, according to Shields. Many South Carolina chefs have accepted the challenge. Through modern interpretations that honor the benne legacy, they are showcasing the seed in exciting ways. Some are extracting the oil, which lacks the sharp bitterness of commercial sesame oils, for use in soups, salads, dressings and entrees. Benne seed waffles, tahini, mole, tortillas, breads and sauces pop up on menus created with a focus on heritage foods. A few restaurants that routinely use benne in recipes include HUSK, FIG, Pawpaw, Slightly North of Broad and Drawing Room in Charleston; Tallulah and The Oak Table in Columbia; Bacon Bros. Public House, The Anchorage and Nose Dive in Greenville; and Restaurant 17 in Travelers Rest.
But you can embark upon a benne adventure in your own kitchen. Order a batch of Sea Island Benne Seeds or Heirloom Bennecake Flour from food purveyor Anson Mills. They've overseen the growing and harvesting for you, so no shaking out seeds or pounding required. Recipe ideas for savory and sweet dishes are listed on their website. For your first foray, here's a simple, tried-and-true benne wafer recipe adapted from "Charleston Receipts."
¾ cup butter
1 ½ cups brown sugar
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 ¼ cups flour
½ cup toasted benne*
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cream butter and sugar, then mix with other ingredients in the order given. Drop dough with a teaspoon onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, spacing each drop to allow for spreading. Bake in a 325-degree oven for 30 minutes, or until wafers are lightly browned. Makes 7 dozen.
*Toast benne seeds in an iron skillet over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until seeds are golden. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool before using.