Sesame is a flowering plant in the genus Sesamum. Numerous wild relatives occur in Africa and a smaller number in India. It is widely naturalized in tropical regions around the world and is cultivated for its edible seeds, which grow in pods. Considered to be the oldest oilseed crop known to man and domesticated well over 5,000 years ago, it has been called a survivor crop, with an ability to grow where most crops fail and is very drought-resistant.
Sesame has many species, and most are wild. Most wild species of the genus Sesamum are native to sub-Saharan Africa. Sesame Indicum the cultivated type, originated in India.
Charred remains of sesame recovered from archaeological excavations have been dated to 3500-3050 BC. The historic origins suggest sesame was favoured for its ability to grow in areas that will not support other crops. A robust crop that needs little farmer support, it grows in drought conditions, high heat, with residual moisture in soil after monsoons are gone or even when rains fail or when rains are excessive. It is a crop that can be grown by subsistence farmers at the edge of deserts, where no crops grow.
Sesame is very drought-tolerant and has adapted to many soil types, in part due to its extensive root system. However, it requires adequate moisture for germination and early growth. While the crop survives drought as well as in the presence of excess water, yields are significantly lower in either conditions. Most commercial cultivars of sesame are intolerant of waterlogging, so rainfall late in the season prolongs growth and increases high harvest-shattering losses. Wind can also cause shattering at harvest.
It is difficult to dry sesame after harvest because the small, flat seed makes movement of air around the seed difficult. The seeds have to be harvested when they’re as dry as possible because if the seed is too moist, it can quickly spoil.
After harvesting, seeds are usually cleaned and hulled. Once the seeds have been hulled, they are passed through an electronic colour-sorting machine that rejects any discoloured seeds to ensure perfectly coloured sesame seeds because sesame seeds with consistent appearance are perceived to be of better quality by consumers and sells for higher price. Immature or off-sized seed is removed but saved for oil production.
For thousands of years, sesame seeds have been a source of food and oil. Sesame has one of the highest oil content of any seed, some varieties exceed 50 percent oil content compared to soya bean’s 20 percent and is one of the most stable vegetable oils, with a long shelf life, because of a high level of natural antioxidants. The oil is used in cooking, on salads and in margarine.
Sesame seed is also rich in protein, at 25 percent by weight. The flour that remains after oil extraction is between 35 to 50 percent protein, has good effective carbohydrates, and contains water-soluble antioxidants (sesaminol glucosides) that provide added shelf life to many products. This flour, also called sesame meal, is an excellent high-protein feed for poultry and livestock.
In 2008, about 65 percent of the annual sesame crop was processed into oil and 35 percent was used in food. The food segment included about 42 percent roasted sesame, 36 percent washed sesame, 12 percent ground sesame and 10 percent roasted sesame seed with salt.
Sesame seeds are a common ingredient around the world, used whole in cooking for the rich nutty flavour and sometimes added to breads, including bagels and the tops of hamburger buns. The seeds may be baked into crackers, often in the form of sticks. In Sicily and France, the seeds are eaten on bread (called “ficelle sésame” or sesame thread). In Greece the seeds are also used in cakes.
In Asia, sesame seeds are sprinkled onto some sushi style foods. In Japan whole seeds are found in many salads and baked snacks and tan and black varieties are roasted and used to make the flavouring gomashio. East Asian cuisines, like Chinese cuisine use sesame seeds and oil in some dishes, such as dim sum, sesame seed balls, and the Vietnamese bánh rán, and are also very popular in Korean cuisine, primarily for marinating meat and vegetables.
Sesame, or “sim sim” is used across Africa; in Togo the seeds are a main soup ingredient and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and northern Angola, wangila is a delicious dish of ground sesame, often served with smoked fish or lobster.
In Manipur, India, black sesame is used in the preparation of thoiding and in singju (a kind of salad).
Sesame seed cookies and wafers, both sweet and savoury, are popular in places like Charleston, South Carolina. Sesame seeds, also called benne, are believed to have been taken to 17th century colonial America by West African slaves. Since then, they have become part of various American cuisines.
In Caribbean cuisine, sugar and white sesame seeds are combined into a bar resembling peanut brittle and sold in stores and street corners.
Sesame is a popular and essential ingredient in many Middle Eastern cuisines. Sesame seeds are made into a paste called tahini, used in various ways, including hummus and the Middle Eastern confection halvah. Ground and processed, the seeds are also used in sweet confections. In South Asia, Middle East, East Asian cuisines, popular confectionery are made from sesame mixed with honey or syrup and roasted into a sesame candy.
Mexican cuisine refers to sesame seeds as ajonjolí. It is mainly used as a sauce additive in mole or adobo. It is often also used to sprinkle over artisan breads and baked in traditional form to coat the smooth dough, especially on whole-wheat flat breads or artisan nutrition bars.