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Sesame: In History, Lore, and Cuisine

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Now in popular use for some 5000 years, sesame has a long history related to myth, medicine, and religion. Today it is used in many regional and ethic dishes, and is a mainstay of many cultures around the world.

Sesame is a flowering plant indigenous to the tropical regions of Africa and India, cultivated for its edible seeds which grow in pods.  Its flowers are predominately yellow, but can vary from blue or purple to charcoal black. 

Despite the fact that the majority of the wild species of sesame are native to sub-Saharan Africa, archeological evidence shows that it was first cultivated at Harappa in the Indus Valley around 2250 to 1750 BCE, with evidence of first usage dating to 3000 BCE China, where sesame oil was burned as a light source and to make soot for their ink-blocks. Its wider usage in medicine, religion, and culinary settings is traced to India and the Makran region of Pakistan, sometime during the 2nd Century BCE.

Perhaps the most widely-known sesame seed reference is, of course, “Open sesame,” the magic words used by Ali Baba to open the entrance of the secret treasure cave in the classic Arabic tale, The Thousand and One Nights.  Historians believe that sesame was so commonly used among Arabs, that the logic was that this phrase would quickly be forgotten by outsiders because it was so familiar.  Other historians attribute the phrase to the manner in which the ripened sesame seed pods burst open much like the sudden pop of a lock springing open.  In either regard, its reference is now known virtually world-wide.

Interwoven into Eastern mythology, according to Assyrian cosmology, the gods were drinking sesame seed wine when they created the world, thus making it holy.  In Hindu legends, tales are told in which sesame seeds represent immortality and the god Maha Vishnu’s consort, Maha Sri Devi, and are used in Hindu rituals and referenced in prayers.  In Tamil literature, the Dravidian language of the Indian subcontinent, sesame is a sacred plant whose oil is prescribed for malnourishment, with the taking of a sesame oil bath at least once a week (on Wednesday and Saturday for males, Fridays for females), mandatory in Tamil tradition, with a weekly shower of sesame oil said to reduce the body heat of those living in hot and humid tropical regions.

It was during the early 17th century that African slaves first brought sesame seeds, which they called benné seeds, to America, where they quickly became a mainstay of Southern dishes.  Sesame seed cookies and wafers, both sweet and savory, are still popular today in places like Charleston, South Carolina and can be found offered at many bed & breakfasts.  Now widely appreciated throughout the US for their rich, nutty flavor, they are typically added to breads, including bagels and the tops of hamburger buns, and baked into crackers, often in the form of crunchy sticks.

In Japan, whole sesame seeds are found in many salads and baked snacks, and typically sprinkled onto sushi-style foods.  In Greece, the seeds are used in cakes and made into a honey-seed treat called “pasteli,” while in Togo they are a main ingredient in soups. 

In Sicily and parts of France, the seeds are eaten on bread called “ficelle sésame,” while in Manipur, India, black sesame is used extensively as a favorite side dish known as “thoiding” and in a type of salad called “singju.” 

In Cuban cuisine, sugar and white sesame seeds are combined into a bar resembling peanut brittle and sold in stores and on street corners, while in many parts of India, the Middle East, and East Asia, popular treats are made from sesame mixed with honey or syrup and roasted. 

In Japanese cuisine a food product called “goma-dofu” is made from sesame paste and starch, and in China, sesame seeds and sesame oil are used in several dishes such as “dim sum,” and sesame seed balls. 

Sesame flavor (the oil and roasted or raw seeds) is also very popular in Korean cuisine, used to marinate meats and vegetables, while in Mexican cuisine, where seeds are referred to as ajonjolí (derived from the Arabic), are mainly used as a sauce additive, such as mole or adobo

And though quite popular throughout Latin American, Mexico exports the majority of its sesame seed crop to North and South America, with about a third of their sesame crop exported to the United States and purchased by McDonald's for their famous sesame seed buns.

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Images via Wikipedia.org

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James R. Coffey

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