Sesame seeds are tiny little flat oval seeds with a nutty taste very delicate almost invisible crunch that are added to many Asian dishes. They come in different colors depending upon the variety such as white, yellow, black and red. They are scientifically known as Sesamun indicum.
Sesame seeds are said to be the oldest condiment known to man dating back early as 1600 BC. They are highly prized for their oil which is exceptionally resistant to rancidity. “Open sesame,” the famous phrase from the Arabian Nights, reflects the distinguishing feature of the sesame seed pod, which bursts open when it reaches maturity. They are the main ingredient in tahini (sesame seed paste) and the wonderful Middle Eastern sweet call halvah. They are available throughout the year.
In India, where sesame has been cultivated since the Harappan period, there are two independent names for it: Tila in Sankrit and Til in Marathi. Hindi/Urdu Til is the source of all names in North India — e.g. Gujarati and Bangla it is til and raashi in Oriya. In contrast, most of the languages in South India it is known as ellu in Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada and Nuvvulu in Telugu.
Since prehistoric times, sesame seeds have been grown in tropical regions throughout the world. According to Assyrian legend, when the gods met to create the world, they drank wine made from sesame seeds. In these legends, tales are told in which sesame seeds represent a symbol of immortality. These seeds were thought to have first originated in India and were mentioned in early Hindu legends and then were introduced throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
They were the first crops processed for sesame oil as well as the earliest condiments. In addition they were added to baked goods which can be traced back to ancient Egyptian times from an ancient tomb painting that depicts a baker adding the seeds to bread dough. During the late 17th century sesame seeds were brought to the United States from Africa and now currently India, China and Mexico are the largest producers of sesame seeds. It is a tall annual herb of the pedaliaceae family that grows extensively in Asia especially in Burma, China and India. It is also one of main commercial crops in Nigeria, Sudan and Ethiopia.
Sesame seeds are small, almost oblate in shape featuring pleasant nutty flavor with high oil content. Sesame contain more of unsaturated fats hence should be stored in air-tight containers to avoid them turn rancid. At home, place them in cool dark place. Properly stored dry seeds generally stay fresh for several months. Store hulled “white” seeds always in the refrigerator.
According to Hindu legends and beliefs, til oil represent a symbol of immortality and is considered as the most auspicious oil next to ghee. In Orissa, raashi ladoo (sweet made of sesame seeds) is a must to be offered to Lord Ganesha. Black sesame seeds are mixed with grains of rice and offered to the manes. White sesame seeds mixed with rice are offered to the gods and seers of the Veda. Both of these offerings are called tarpanam. Sesame oil is used to pacify the malefic effect of Lord Shani (Saturn). In Tamil literature and medicine it has been mentioned as the “very good healthy” oil as such it is called Nala + Enney (Good Oil), old Tamil medicinal proverbs such as “ilaythavannakku yellum kohluthavanukkum kohlum”; meaning “prescribe for underweight/unnourished it boost up and also may apply for the overweight/corpulent as well to reduce down, sometimes misinterpreted as “prescribe sesame to underweight and horse gram to overweight” thus the word kohlum is mistaken for Horse Gram. Tamil medicine holds that gargling with sesame oil after brushing one’s teeth will reduce gum disease and mouth ulcers while eliminating plaque. Taking a sesame oil bath with a simple self massage are considered mandatory in Tamil tradition at least once in a week.
Sesame is primarily grown for its oil rich seeds and the small ones are used in cooking for its rich nutty flavor. They are added to breads including bagels and tops of burger buns and baked into crackers. Sesame seeds are also sprinkled onto some sushi style foods and used in many salads and baked snacks in Japan. In India, sesame seeds are used for various dishes like in Tamil Nadu, sesame oil is used extensively in their cuisine. Milagai podi, a popular gun powder made of sesame seeds and dry red chilli mixed together enhances the flavor and served with traditional foods like Idli, dosa etc. In other parts of India, til is used in preparing the Til pitha during bihu in Assam and Tilgul in Marathi and Til Ladoo is a very popular Indian sweet.
Sesame seeds are used liberally in cooking to make a rich flavorful paste which is then added to different cuisines. Dry fried sesame seeds ground to a thin light brown color paste known as tahini. Tahini is one of the main ingredient in famous middle-eastern dip, hummus. Dry fried seeds sprinkled over toasts, biscuits, breads, cakes, salads, stir fries etc. The seeds used in many south-Indian sweet delicacies, often mixed with roasted peanuts, almonds and jaggery. Sesame oil obtained from the seeds is one of the most sought after cooking oil in Malaysia, Indonesia and southern states of rural India. Healthful sesame seeds can easily be added to a variety of menu items, adding taste, texture, and eye-appeal. Women of ancient Babylon would eat halva, a mixture of honey and sesame seeds to prolong youth and beauty, while Roman soldiers ate the mixture for strength and energy.
One of the first oil seeds known to mankind, sesame seeds are used in culinary as well as in traditional medicines for their nutritive, preventive and curative properties. Its oil seeds are sources for some phyto-nutrients such as omega-6 fatty acids, flavonoid phenolic anti-oxidants, vitamins and dietary fiber with potent anti-cancer as well as health promoting properties. Delicious, crunchy sesame seeds are widely considered to be healthful foods. They are high in energy but contain many health benefiting nutrients, minerals, antioxidants and vitamins that are essential for wellness.
Sesame amongst the nuts and seeds are 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. Just a hand full of sesame a day provides enough recommended levels of phenolic anti-oxidants, minerals, vitamins and protein.
Sesame oil is used for massage and health treatments of the body (abhyanga and shirodhara) and teeth (oil pulling) in ancient Indian ayurvedic system. Sesame seeds are a very good source of copper, magnesium and calcium. Just a quarter-cup of sesame seeds supplies 74.0% of the daily value for copper, 31.6% of the DV for magnesium, and 35.1% of the DV for calcium. This rich assortment of minerals translates into the following health benefits:
The seeds are exceptionally rich in iron and calcium (90 mg per tablespoon for unhulled seeds, 10 mg for hulled) and contains vitamin B1 (thiamine) and vitamin E (tocopherol). Among edible oils from six plants, sesame oil had the highest antioxidant content. Sesame seeds also contain phytosterols associated with reduced levels of blood cholesterol. In addition, sesame seeds are a good source of both dietary fiber and monounsaturated fats.
Sesame seeds allergy is a type of hyper-sensitivity reaction in some sensitive individuals. Generally the reactions include hives, dermatitis and itching. Sometimes the reaction may be severe and may lead to severe physical symptoms like vomiting, pain abdomen, swelling of lips and throat leading to breathing difficulty, chest congestion and death. It is, therefore, advised to avoid any food preparations that contain sesame products in these individuals.
The nutritional value per 100 g of toasted sesame seeds are:
Energy: 2372 kJ (567 kcal)
Carbohydrates: 26.04 g
Sugars: 0.48 g
Dietary fiber: 16.9 g
Fat: 48 g
Protein: 16.96 g
Calcium: 131 mg
Iron: 7.78 mg
Magnesium: 346 mg
Phosphorus: 774 mg
Potassium: 406 mg
Sodium: 39 mg