Sesame is an ancient spice, one of the first recorded plants used for its seeds. It has been used for thousands of years and is still an oil seed of worldwide significance. Early Assyrians believed their gods drank sesame wine as a prelude to creating the world. A drawing on an Egyptian tomb of 4,000 years ago depicts a baker adding sesame seeds to the dough. Around the same time, the Chinese were burning sesame oil to make soot for ink. Ancient Greek soldiers carried sesame seeds as energy-boosting emergency rations and the Romans made a kind of hummus from sesame and cumin.
Sesame has been considered a symbol of good luck and signifies immortality to Brahmins. Sesame oil is a non-drying oil, highly stable rarely turns rancid in hot climates. It is very rich in protein, a polyunsaturated fat used in margarine production and cooking oils. Non-culinary uses include its use as an ingredient in soap, cosmetics, lubricants and medicines. In southern India, it is used to anoint the body and hair.
The “Open Sesame” of Arabian Nights fame, probably derives from the sound the ripe seeds make when they burst from their pods, a popping noise that sounds like a lock spring opening.
Sesame seeds are contained in the pods of a tropical plant. They are tiny, flat ovals, measuring about 3 mm (1/8 in) long. Seed colours can vary, though usually beige or creamy white when husked. The seeds are sold dried and whole or ground to form tahini paste.
Bouquet: Nutty and earthy
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Preparation and Storage
The whole seeds are enhanced by lightly toasting before use. They are ready when they start to jump. Store in airtight containers out of light. Tahini paste tends to settle into layers and requires stirring before use. It should be kept in a tightly sealed glass jar.
Cooking with Sesame Seed
The simplest and now commonest use of sesame is as whole seeds sprinkled over cakes and bread, like poppy seeds. In Syria and Lebanon, it is mixed with sumac and thyme to make the condiment zatar. Sesame is a key ingredient in halva, the Middle Eastern confection, where the seeds are ground and pressed into blocks with various sweet or nutty ingredients. Sesame in its ground form, tahini, is widely used throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean. It is a flavouring for hummus, a sauce for kebabs and is often mixed with lemon and garlic to make a bread dip — a popular Arab appetizer or mezze. In Mexico, its oil is called ajonjoli which is frequently used for cooking.
Black sesame appears frequently in Chinese, Japanese and Korean dishes where meat or fish is rolled in the seeds before cooking for a crunchy coating. Black sesame is an ingredient of gomassio, the Japanese tabletop condiment, and other colourful rice and noodle dishes.
Sesame Seed Health Benefits
Sesame seeds are high in energy but contain many health-benefiting nutrients, minerals, antioxidants and vitamins that are essential for wellness. The seeds are especially rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acid oleic acid, which comprises up to 50% of the fatty acids in them. Oleic acid helps to lower LDL or “bad cholesterol” and increase HDL or “good cholesterol” in the blood. Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet which is rich in mono-unsaturated fats helps to prevent coronary artery disease and stroke.
Sesame Seeds Nutrition
The seeds are also a very good source of dietary proteins with fine-quality amino acids that are essential for growth. They contain many health-benefiting compounds such as sesamol (3, 4-methylene-dioxyphenol), sesaminol, furyl-methanthiol, guajacol (2-methoxyphenol), phenylethanthiol and furaneol, vinylguacol and decadienal. Sesamol and sesaminol are phenolic anti-oxidants. Together, these compounds help stave off harmful free radicals from the body.
Sesame is rich in quality vitamins and minerals. They are very good sources of B-complex vitamins such as niacin, folic acid, thiamin (vitamin B1), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), and riboflavin. The seeds are incredibly rich sources of many essential minerals. Calcium, iron, manganese, zinc, magnesium, selenium, and copper are especially concentrated in sesame seeds. The seeds and fresh leaves may be used as a poultice. The oil has wide medical and pharmaceutical applications.
Sesame Seed Allergy
Similar to the signs of a peanut or nut allergy, the reported symptoms include hives, eczema, wheezing (asthma-like symptoms), stomach pains, redness and irritation of the eyes and swelling around the eyes, face, lips, throat and tongue, anxiety, distress, faintness, paleness, sense of doom, weakness. This last symptom is a dangerous sign of anaphylactic shock. Immediate medical assistance is required to prevent a complete blockage of all air passages.
Make sure you read product labels carefully to avoid products that contain sesame seeds and sesame derivatives. Avoid food and products that do not have an ingredient list and read labels every time you shop. Manufacturers may occasionally change their recipes or use different ingredients for varieties of the same brand.
Plant Description and Cultivation
A tropical herbaceous annual that grows 1 -2 m (2 – 6 ft) tall. The plant has an unpleasant odour. The leaves vary from ovate to lanceolate and are hairy on both sides. The flowers are purple to whitish, resembling foxglove, followed by 3 cm (1.25 in) capsules containing numerous seeds. It matures in 80 -180 days when the stems are cut and hung upside down for the ripe seeds to fall out to be collected on mats. Mechanical harvesting is also used, with total worldwide production of almost 4 billion pounds annually.
Bene Seeds, Beniseed, Benne, Gingelly, Gingili, Gingilli, Semsem, Simsim, Teel, Til
Spanish: ajonjoli, sesamo
Arabic: tahina, tahine, tahini
Chinese: chi mah, hak chi mah (black sesame)
Indian: gingelly (oil)
Japanese: goma, kuro goma (black sesame)
Malay: bene, bijan
syn: S. orientale
Recipes using Sesame
Image by Susana Martins from Pixabay