Real Food Encyclopedia | Sesame

Sesame’s origins are the subject of hot debate among biologists, with some saying that the plant originated in Southeast Africa and others insisting it was the Indian subcontinent. Either way, historians seem to agree that it was first cultivated in the Harappa Valley (in what is now Pakistan and India), dating back to at least 5,000 years ago. Cultivation of the oil- and protein-rich seeds spread to Asia and Europe, but because the plant needs a tropical or sub-tropical climate to be productive, sesame really flourished in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where it has been used for generations as a staple food.

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Fun Facts about Sesame:

  • According to “The Oxford Companion to Food,” the word “sesame” comes from the ancient Egyptian sesemt, making it one of the few ancient Egyptian words to make it into modern language.
  • Another term for sesame, benne, a term used frequently in the Southern US (especially in South Carolina), comes from the word bene in the West African Bambara and Wolof languages.

What to Look for When Buying Sesame

Sesame seeds come in a number of different colors. You’re probably most familiar with the type that has beige or off-white seeds, but black sesame, red sesame and dark-brown sesame seeds are also a thing. In the US, seed coats are removed (hulled) and used to top burger buns and other breads and pastries.

Sesame oil can be made from raw or roasted seeds. Oil from raw seeds can be cold-pressed or expeller-pressed or in some small-scale operations, pressed by hand with manual presses. The resulting oil is fairly mild in flavor and yellow to golden in color. Toasted sesame oil is made from roasted (or toasted) sesame seeds. It is very strong (and delicious) tasting, and brown in color.

Sustainability of Sesame

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the top global producers of sesame in 2014 were Myanmar, India, China, Sudan and Tanzania. The seeds are also grown in Mexico and Central America. We are aware that regimes like those in power in Myanmar and Sudan have human rights issues, and because we do not have mandatory country of origin food labels in the US, it can be hard to determine where your sesame seeds come from. But — and this is a big “but” — while a lot of globally traded sesame comes from these countries, the crop is commonly grown by smallholder farmers who depend on the success of their crops and the global demand for the seeds. While some of your money spent on the seeds may end up in the hands of abusive regimes, boycotting sesame will not help the small-scale farmers who grow it. There is little accessible information about sesame in these countries, but a group dedicated to rehabilitating former child soldiers in Uganda has an interesting story about sesame farming near the Sudan border in Uganda, for a deeper dive.

Water use in seed processing is also an issue. Most hamburger buns use de-hulled sesame seeds, and the de-hulling process uses a great deal of water if mechanically done. Other de-hulling and bleaching techniques include washing the seeds with peroxide and bleach. Choose un-hulled seeds to keep the crop’s water footprint down.

Pesticides and Sesame

Sesame is a drought- and poor soil-tolerant plant, which is the good news. The bad news is that much of US-grown sesame is intercropped with cotton, a crop that is nearly entirely genetically modified (GM). Why does that matter? Much of this GM cotton is created to be herbicide resistant, so lots of chemical herbicides are used on cotton fields and wind up in the soil and in local waterways. The American Sesame Growers Association also worked with the US Department of Environmental Protection (EPA) to approve S-metolachlor, an herbicide that controls weeds in sesame fields.

Small producers like Anson Mills work with local farmers to produce sesame (aka benne) that has been farmed sustainably, or you can seek out organically-grown sesame if you are concerned about any of these issues.

How to Cook Sesame

Storing Fresh Sesame

Store sesame seeds and oil in a cool, dry place to avoid rancidity. You can keep them in the refrigerator to extend their life.

Cooking With Sesame

Toast sesame seeds in the oven or on the stovetop. To toast in the oven, spread the seeds in a small, rimmed baking sheet. Roast at 350 F for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. You can also toast small amounts of nuts in the microwave.

Sesame seeds are an important part of many of the world’s cuisines. You’ll find them in prominent dishes in Asia, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and in parts of Africa. In Korea and Japan, toasted sesame seeds (and oil) are commonly used as garnish and as flavor enhancers. The Japanese also make dry condiments with the seeds — like gomashio (sesame salt) and furikake (usually sesame seeds, seaweed and dried fish). In India, untoasted sesame is a common cooking oil, and the seeds are used in candies (here’s a recipe for til ka ladoo, sweet sesame balls), chutneys and other savory dishes.

In many cuisines of the Middle East and in Turkey, Greece and Iran, the little seeds play an important role in the form of tahini, sesame seed paste. It’s used to make dips like hummus and baba ganoush, made into candies (like halva) and drizzled on top of meat and vegetable dishes. It’s ridiculously easy to make your own tahini, so go try it! Tahini will keep for months in the refrigerator.

Of course, here in the US sesame seeds are used to top buns and bagels, made into crackers and turned into sesame seed bread sticks. And in the South Carolina low country, you can’t go anywhere without seeing (and eating) benne wafers, sesame seed cookies.

But don’t let breads and cookies limit your sesame seed consumption. Toss them into homemade granola, toast them and sprinkle them into salads and top any and all veggies with them. Here are a bunch of sesame recipes from The Guardian to get your culinary creative juices going.

Black sesame seeds, slightly stronger in flavor, are used in Chinese cooking and are gaining popularity in the US, especially with pastry chefs. Here are a few black sesame seed recipes from NPR that look amazing. Sesame leaves and pods are also edible.

Sesame Nutrition

Sesame seeds are loaded with dietary fiber and lots of vitamins and minerals, like Vitamin B6, thiamin, calcium, folate, iron, magnesium, copper and manganese. Sesame oil is high in antioxidants.