// Written by Francisca Gomez //
Sesame seeds seem to be everywhere: in your salads, sushi rolls, on burger buns, bagels, sauces, etc. They’re even the password to open a cave full of stolen treasure in the Arabian Nights story, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” where Ali Baba becomes rich when he discovers that he can open the thieves’ cave with the words “open sesame.” Read on if you want to discover the secrets of that tiny, crunchy, oily seed. Open sesame!
Sesame seeds are an ancient crop, used for oil and as a condiment. The sesame plant was one of the first to be used specifically for its seeds. Though its origins are uncertain, the sesame plant most likely originated in India, or in tropical Africa. What is certain is that the plant spread to Asia, Africa and the Middle East, acquiring new meanings and uses everywhere that it was introduced. In the Orient, especially, sesame seeds became extremely important as a staple crop.
In India, sesame seeds were regarded as a symbol of immortality. They were used for oils to be consumed and on the body and hair. Assyrians believed that sesame wine was consumed when the gods met to create the world. Egyptian hieroglyphs also depict the use of sesame seeds by a baker on dough. In ancient Greece, soldiers used sesame seeds for energy. An unexpected use of sesame seeds was by the Chinese, who burned the sesame oil to create soot that was used in ink.
Sesame seeds are the main ingredient in various traditional recipes: Middle Eastern tahini sauce and the sweet halvah; in ancient Rome, sesame seeds were combined with cumin to make a variation of hummus; in Syria and Lebanon they are mixed with sumac and thyme to make zatar, a condiment. Black sesame seeds are used in China, Japan and Korea, usually meats and fish are rolled in the seeds, and in Japan the black seeds are also used in a condiment called gomassio.
Sesame seeds have special nutritional properties. Sesame oil can be preserved for a long time, as it is very resistant to rancidity. The seeds contain two important substances, sesamin and sesamolin, which are both a type of fiber called lignans. These fibers can lower cholesterol in humans and, in animals, they can increase Vitamin E while aslo preventing high blood pressure. The scientific name of sesame seeds is sesamun indicum.
The sesame seeds can be found in a tropical herbaceous plant, which reportedly has a bad smell (I, unfortunately, have never seen a sesame plant and, thus, cannot confirm or describe its smell). The plant has hairy leaves and the flowers are white. Fragile capsules 3cm long hold many seeds. The capsules break open when ripe and the seeds fall out, to be collected on mats. The seeds come in many colors, including white, brown, black and red. The seeds are usually hulled, and distributed around the world. The production of sesame seeds is a staggering four billion pounds a year.
When the sesame capsules ripen and the seeds fall out, they make a popping sound; according to first hand accounts, it is like a lock spring opening. Interestingly, the Arabic name for sesame is al-juljulan, which might come from the word for sound or echo, jaljala. Perhaps an onomatopoeia, this might be the poetic secret to the password of the thieves’ cave in “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”