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Sesame Seeds at a Glance
History Uses Name Origin Medical Benefits Recipe
Growing Nutrition Purchasing Preparation

Scheherazade was the first person to give the sesame superhuman powers when she held her Arabian caliph spellbound for one thousand and one nights with her tales of intrigue and adventure. Because sesame pods readily burst open at the slightest touch when they are ripe, Scheherazade provided Ali Baba with the magic words, "Open Sesame" to instantly open the cave, a robber's den, in her exciting story about "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves."

Sesame seeds are thought to be one of the oldest condiments, and so appealing that they became an integral part of the varied cuisines throughout India, Sumer, Egypt, and Anatolia, where they were cultivated. Historians believe the original homeland of the sesame seed is the Indian subcontinent. Britannica's 11th edition places its native soil in the Indian Archipelago, an area once called the Spice Islands.

One taste of the sweet, delectable Halvah, a sesame and honey confection of Levantine origin, and you'll easily understand the allure that sesame seeds held to cultures of the ancient Middle East. The ancient cultures inhabiting Anatolia, today called Turkey, were pressing sesame seeds and using sesame oil about 900 BCE.

Before sesame seeds were appreciated for their ability to add rich nutty flavor or to garnish foods, they were used only for oil or wine. The Assyrians claim to hold the earliest records for writing, having left their stone tablets as evidence. One of the tablets describes a legend about the Assyrian gods who drank sesame wine one night, then created the earth the following day.

Archeological excavations throughout the Middle East revealed the use of sesame oil dating back to 3000 BCE, well before the time of Christ. Persia and India were also cultivating this tiny treasure for its oil.

Sesame oil was the ideal base for making exotic perfumes, a practice that dates back to the Babylonians circa 2100 to 689 BCE. The Babylonians also used the oil for cooking, sesame cakes, and medicine. They, too, made wine from sesame and even perfected a brandy employing sesame seeds. Medicinally, sesame oil played an important role as an antidote to the bite of the spotted lizard.

The Chinese used the oil not only as a light source but also to create soot from which they made their superior stick ink over 5,000 years ago. Ancient Chinese calligraphic works of art using stick ink made from sesame oil may still be in existence in museums.

Palace records of Egypt's King Nebuchadnezzar, 6th century BCE, were carefully kept on clay tablets. One of the entries mentions a purchase of sesame oil. Records show that the Egyptians prescribed the sesame as medicine about 1500 BCE and used the oil as ceremonial purification. Historians such as 4th century Theophrastus, mention that sesame seeds were cultivated in Egypt. During that same period, Africa, too, cultivated the sesame seed in Ethiopia, the Sudan, and what was once Tanganyika.

Sesame Plant We often hear the expression "nothing new under the sun," referring to what we tend to recognize as a new idea, only to discover that it's been done long before. Sprinkling sesame seeds on breads before baking them probably feels like a 20th century culinary innovation, but history reveals that it's not. The ancient tombs of important Egyptian nobles were decorated with colorful paintings. One tomb, dating back 4,000 years, contains a scene of a baker sprinkling sesame seeds into his dough. Dioscorides, a 1st century CE historian, tells us the Sicilian bakers were eagerly sprinkling sesame seeds on their breads centuries ago.

The Europeans encountered the sesame seeds when they were imported from India during the 1st century CE. Even the Venetian traveler, Marco Polo, was taken by the outstanding flavor of sesame oil that he tasted in Abyssinia, proclaiming it the best he had ever tasted.

Naming Sesame
Sesame . . . that engaging, mellifluous word evolved from the Arabic simsim, the Coptic semsem, and the Egyptian semsent. A German Egyptologist, named Ebers, discovered a papyrus scroll 65 feet long that contained a listing of ancient herbs and spices, among them was semsent. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, by Apicius, cookbook author of the Roman era, refers to semsent in his book. The Romans enjoyed ground sesame seeds that they mixed with cumin to make a tasty spread for their bread

Benniseeds or benne seeds, as sesame seeds were called in the Bantu dialect, arrived in the United States with the West African slaves who brought only a few precious possessions with them. During the 17th and 18th centuries slave traders were running slave ships to the Southern States and the Caribbean. In Charleston, South Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana, benniseeds were considered good luck and incorporated into many dishes that are still used in Southern cooking.

During the 1930s, the major vegetable oil used by Americans was sesame oil. At that time the United States was importing 58,000,000 pounds of sesame seeds a year mostly for producing oil. Two events combined to shift the importing of these huge quantities of sesame seeds to a diminished 12 million pounds by the early 1950s: World War II and the development of inexpensive soybean and cottonseed oils.

A 1956 Pillsbury Bake-off contest winner changed the course of the downward spiraling sesame seed. The Washington, D.C. homemaker created an Open Sesame Pie and started a frenzy with commercial bakers sprinkling the tasty little seeds on all sorts of breads and crackers. It was the hamburger bun, however, that put sesame seeds back into the spotlight. Today, it's difficult to find hamburger buns without sesame seeds.

Traditional Uses:
"The butter of the Middle East," tahini, a smooth, creamy paste made of toasted, ground hulled sesame seeds, is a centuries-old traditional ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking. Hummos, a Middle Eastern appetizer that has become a universal favorite is made of ground chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, salt, and tahini. Baba ghanoush, another favorite appetizer known throughout the Middle East, has a base of roasted eggplant seasoned with tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and salt. These sesame-based dishes have been handed down from generation to generation for centuries.

In the ancient Arab world, preparations for a caravan trip meant preparing provisions that would not only sustain them through the hot, dry desert but would offer nourishment that pleasured them as well. Open sesame! They began with a pound of dry breadcrumbs, kneaded them into three-quarters of a pound each of pitted dates, almonds, and pistachios, and added a few spoonsful of sesame oil to moisten the mixture. Then they formed the mixture into balls and rolled them in a coating of sesame seeds. This handy old recipe makes ideal present-day backpacking food as well.

In addition to its popular use as oil for salads or cooking, sesame oil is used in producing margarine, soap making, pharmaceuticals, paints, and lubricants. In the cosmetic field, sesame oil is used as a base in developing perfumes.

After the sesame oil is pressed out of the seed, the resulting residue is referred to as a seed cake that is very high in protein. A portion of this nutritious seed cake is used as animal feed, while the remainder is ground into sesame flour and added to health foods.

Southern Indian cuisine depends on sesame oil for cooking, while in Japan it was the only cooking oil until quite recently. Today sesame oil is often combined with bland, less expensive oils.

Sesame Seeds The sesame seed plays a most important role in shojin-ryori, vegetarian cooking in the Japanese Buddhist monasteries. There the sesame seeds are almost always toasted before using as a sprinkle over rice dishes. Gomashio, a seasoning made of crushed sesame seeds and salt, is frequently served at the table in Japanese homes to be added as enhancement to the dishes served. If you are an aficionado of Japanese cuisine, you've probably encountered the delightful sesame flavor in traditional dipping sauces served in their restaurants

Used liberally in Chinese cooking, sesame oil is added to many dishes as a seasoning just before serving to benefit fully from its unique fragrance. Chinese confectioners have long favored the use of sesame seeds as a coating on their deep-fried sweets, still available in Oriental bakeries today. Korean cuisine combines sesame, garlic, and pimiento as a triad in many of their traditional dishes.

Sesamum indicum, sesame's Latin name, indicum meaning that it comes from India, likes hot climates and is native to Africa, Indonesia, India, and Afghanistan. The sesame plant is an annual herb of the Pedaliacae family. Its exact origins are unknown, though some claim it was the East Indies where it is also native. Now it is found growing in most tropical, subtropical, and southern temperate areas of the world.

Sesame seeds grow on a plant that has a hairy single stalk, though some do have branches. The average plant grows two to four feet high, some even up to 9 feet in height The plant blossoms with white, pink or purplish flowers that develop into elongated pods containing numerous seeds stacked horizontally, one on top of the other, within the pod. The pear-shaped seed itself is encased in a fibrous hull that offers a range of color from light tan to red, brown, and even black. Hulled seeds, those with the hulls removed, are an ivory white.

Those unfamiliar with sesame seeds are surprised that such a tiny, flat seed, only 1/8 inch in length and 1/20th of an inch thick, can be endowed with such depth of flavor. In its raw form, it is frequently described as delicately sweet and nutty. When toasted it takes on the flavor of roasted peanuts with unique overtones.

In harvesting the sesame seeds, first the plant stalks are cut and stacked vertically. Each stalk is then shaken over a cloth to catch the seeds that fly out from the mature pods.

Harvesting was a laborious task that was mostly done by hand. Since the mature seedpods are quite fragile and will burst open easily, scattering the seeds to the ground, harvesting could not be done by machine until recently. In the middle of the 20th century, horticulturists developed a hybrid variety of sesame that does not scatter, and now some of the harvesting is a machine process, though too costly to be widely used.

Sesame seeds tend to be a commercial crop where labor is inexpensive and much of the harvesting is still done by hand. Most of today's commercially produced sesame seeds are grown throughout Central America, Mexico, and the People's Republic of China, with India and Africa a close second.

In the United States, sesame seeds are grown in Arizona and Texas. For the U.S. to become a major producer, less fragile varieties of sesame seeds will have to be developed on a large scale so machine harvesting can keep the prices competitive with the present market.

Health Benefits
Sesame oil rubbed on the skin may soothe a minor burn or sunburn as well as help in the healing process.

It's not unusual to encounter fantastic claims attributed to a single food. Sesame seed oil is said to remove wrinkles when applied to the skin in a facial massage. If this news gets out, there won't be a bottle left on the grocery shelves!

Eat some sesame seeds to relieve constipation and to remove worms from the intestinal tract. They're an aid to digestion, stimulate blood circulation, and benefit the nervous system. Sesame oil makes ideal massage oil because of its excellent emollient properties.

Applied topically, sesame oil is thought to aid in healing chronic diseases of the skin. With its vitamin E content, it's also a benefit to the heart and nervous system.

Sesame seeds are 25 percent protein and are especially rich in methionine and tryptophan, often lacking in adequate quantities in many plant proteins. One ounce of decorticated or hulled seeds contains 6 grams of protein, 3.7 grams of fiber, and 14 grams of total fat. When toasted they lose nutrients, scoring 4.8 grams of protein, gaining a little fiber at 4.8 grams, and packing 13.6 grams of total fat.

The fat in sesame seeds is 38% monounsaturated, and 44% polyunsaturated which equals 82% unsaturated fatty acids.

Natural sesame seeds (unhulled) contain 5 grams of protein per ounce, 3.1 grams fiber, and 14 grams of total fat. When toasted they offer 4.8 grams of protein, 4.0 grams fiber, and 13.8 grams of total fat.

Because sesame seeds are a plant food, there's no need to worry about cholesterol. There simply isn't any to be found within the seeds or the oil.

Tahini or sesame seed paste, contains 2.9 grams of protein per tablespoon, .9 grams of fiber, and 8.1 grams of total fat. Tahini also contains the B vitamins, including16 mcg of folic acid. That same tablespoon contains 153.6 mg calcium and 3.07 mg iron. Additional minerals include 57.9 mg magnesium and 93.12 mg potassium.

There is often concern that vegans do not get a sufficient amount of zinc in their diet. Include sesame tahini in your diet often and reap the benefit of plenty of zinc with one tablespoon supplying 1.17 mg.

Sesame oils, whether refined or unrefined, all contain about 14 grams of total fat per tablespoon. Sesame seeds are 44 to 60 % oil. The seeds are prone to rancidity, but the oil is resistant to oxidation, meaning that it is not prone to rancidity because of sesamol, a natural preservative within the oil. Sesame oil is polyunsaturated and high in oleic and linoleic fatty acids that are rich in omega 6.

Natural sesame seeds, those that are unhulled, are high in calcium. One tablespoon provides 87.8 mg while the hulled variety offers only 10.5 mg for that same tablespoon. Comparing sesame seeds to milk turned up some surprising figures in the calcium count. One cup of natural sesame seeds had 1404.0 mg of calcium, while one cup of non-fat milk provided 316.3 mg. and one cup of whole milk contained 291 mg of calcium.

Both natural and hulled sesame seeds contain healthy amounts of the B vitamins riboflavin, thiamine, and niacin. With natural seeds scoring 8.7 mcg of folic acid for 1 tablespoon and plenty of vitamin B6, you can count on sesame seeds for excellent nourishment.

Let's look at some of the mineral values of the sesame seed. One tablespoon of hulled seeds contains .62 mg of iron, 27.73 mg of magnesium, 32.53 mg potassium, and .82 mg of zinc. Figures for the natural, unhulled, are slightly higher. Sesame seeds also contain healthy amounts of phosphorous. If you're lacking iron, turn to the sesame seed. Its iron content is equal to that of liver.

Like all seeds, natural unhulled sesame seeds are living foods capable of producing generation after generation through the process of sprouting. They are nutrient dense in order to trigger the germination process and provide nourishment to the tiny plants as they grow from sprout to maturity.

Nutrients from the sesame seed are best absorbed in the form of sesame oil, tahini or sesame butter. The whole seeds do not break down readily and release all their nutrients.

Purchasing and Storing
Sesame butter, made of ground sesame seeds, is similar to tahini, only thicker, with a consistency similar to peanut butter. Health food markets would be the best place to purchase this specialty.

Sesame seeds are available in hulled and unhulled form. In the United States, the hulled sesame seeds appear as a traditional topping on hamburger buns. The unhulled seeds, also referred to as "natural," are used on crackers, bread sticks, and Italian breads because they have the ability to adhere better.

There are distinct advantages to purchasing the "natural" sesame seeds, those that are unhulled. The hulls act as a protective coating to prevent rancidity and keep the oil more stable. You can recognize natural sesame seeds by their mottled beige coloring. Because they require no processing, these seeds are priced a bit more reasonably. The health food market will most likely have these available.

Most of the sesame seeds sold in the United States are already hulled and used on baked products. Tahini or sesame seed paste is also made from hulled sesame seeds, some of which are toasted and some untoasted or "raw." Sesame aficionados feel that toasting enriches the flavor but those who advocate eating nuts and seeds raw say that heating them destroys valuable enzymes. Both are available in health food markets.

In Chinese and Japanese cuisine, black sesame seeds are prized for their flavor, though most people don't recognize any flavor difference from the ivory seeds. Black sesame seeds do add a dramatic garnish when sprinkled over foods just before serving. You can find them in Asian markets and frequently in the Asian section of large grocery stores.

Sesame Seeds Sesame oil comes in two varieties. One is cold-pressed with a color that is golden and flavor that leans toward bland. The other is the Asian variety made from roasted sesame seeds, darker in color with intense flavor.

To prevent sesame seeds from becoming rancid, it's best to store them in the refrigerator. They can also be frozen for longer storage. Sesame oil has a long shelf life and is resistant to rancidity. However, as with any oil, it's always safest to buy it in small quantities and use it within two months to preserve its flavor.

Put them in an ungreased frying pan and stir over medium-high heat for a minute or two until they become lightly browned. Remove them immediately from the heat and pour them into a dish to avoid residual heat burning them.

As an alternative, you can also put the seeds on a shallow, ungreased pan and toast them in a 350 oven for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring a couple of times.

Because sesame oil is expensive compared to other cooking oils, you can sauté or stir fry your vegetable dishes with a peanut or safflower oil and just add a small amount of sesame oil at the end of the cooking as a flavoring agent.

When frying with sesame oil, cook foods quickly. Be cautious when cooking with the oil at high heat for prolonged periods. There is a tendency for sesame oil to release unpleasant odors.

Small amounts of sesame oil added at the end of cooking give special zest to sauces and stir-fries. Salads, too, take on a special life with a touch of sesame oil. It's important to note, however, that sesame oil is anything but bland. It's flavor and aroma is distinctly Asian, and anything seasoned with it will take on a hint of the Orient.

AS A SPRINKLE: Sprinkle toasted or untoasted sesame seeds over vegetables, noodles, eggplant dishes, stir fries, bread doughs and cookies before baking, and over fruit and nut confections. You can also coat confections, or bread sticks by rolling them in toasted sesame seeds before baking.

To create dishes with a rich nutty flavor, include toasted sesame seeds in cookie doughs, pie pastry, yeast breads, and confections. Blend them into tofu cream cheese or soy mayonnaise to make a nutty spread for sandwiches.

The rich nutty flavor of tahini, the peanut butter of the Middle East, blends with almost any vegetable. Refer to the Recipe Index for the Tahini Falafel Sauce and enjoy it as a dipping sauce for cooked artichokes. The same recipe makes an ideal salad dressing when mixed with a little soy sauce and a sprinkle of water to thin it. And, of course, enjoy the Tahini Falafel Sauce spooned over a tasty falafel (refer to the Recipe Index for easy Homemade Falafel.)

You can enjoy the richness of tahini by simply spreading it on toast and eating it as is or sprinkle a pinch or two of evaporated cane juice over the top.

There's nothing quite like a party dip to bring people together over the communal bowl. It's a bonus when the dip is nutritious and flavorful as well. Here's an easy-to-prepare starter that features the sesame seed at its best.


1 bunch of fresh spinach

1 14.75-oz. (396 g) jar or can water-packed artichoke hearts, drained
2 sprigs fresh mint, leaves only
1/4 C. (60 ml) tahini, (sesame seed paste)
Juice of 1/2 lime
1/2 t. ground cumin
3/4 t. salt
1 T. nutritional yeast

1 t. toasted sesame seeds
Dash or two of paprika

  1. Remove stems from spinach, wash thoroughly, and spin dry in a salad spinner. Put spinach leaves into the food processor with the steel blade, and pulse chop until finely chopped.
  2. Add artichoke hearts, mint leaves, tahini, lime juice, cumin, salt, and nutritional yeast, and process to an almost smooth puree.
  3. Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and a dash of paprika. Serve with toasted pita wedges. Makes 1 3/4 cups.

Click here for a recipe for
Tahini Falafel Sauce.

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