Dorothea Bedigian. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Botanical Description

Sesame (Sesamum indicum L.) belongs to the Pedaliaceae, a small family of about 15 genera and 60 species of annual and perennial herbs. These occur mainly in the Old World tropics and subtropics, with the greatest number in Africa (Purseglove 1968). Sesame is a crop of hot, dry climates, grown for its oiland protein-rich seeds. The oil is valued for its stability, color, nutty flavor, and resistance to rancidity.

A large number of cultivars are known (Bedigian, Smyth, and Harlan 1986).These differ in their maturation time, degree of branching, leaf shape and color, and number of flowers per leaf axil, which may be 1 or 3.The locules in the capsule usually number 4 or 8. The known cultivars also vary in length of capsule, in intensity of flower color, and especially in seed color, which ranges from pure white to black, with intervening shades of ivory, beige, tan, yellow, brown, red, and gray.The seeds are about 3 millimeters long and have a flattened pear shape. The capsules open automatically when dry, causing the seed to scatter.


Sesame is usually grown as a rain-fed crop. It has many agricultural advantages: It sets seed and yields relatively well under high temperatures, it is tolerant of drought, and it does reasonably well on poor soils. It is very sensitive to day length and is intolerant of waterlogging. The major obstacle to the expansion of sesame is its habit of shattering: The absence of non-shattering cultivars, suitable for machine harvest, results in labor-intensive harvest seasons. Because of this obstacle, the crop is not suitable for large-scale commercial production (although breeding for non-shattering traits has been ongoing). Instead, sesame has typically been grown on a small scale for local consumption or in places where labor is cheap. The major sesame-producing countries, listed in order of decreasing tonnage, are India, China, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Sudan, Nigeria, and Uganda (FAO 1992).

Chemical Composition and Nutritional Value


The chief constituent of sesame seed is oil, which usually constitutes 40 to 60 percent of seed weight. This is a greater oil content than most other oil crops (Hussein and Noaman 1976; Tinay, Khattab, and Khidir 1976; Salunkhe et al. 1991). Sesame oil content is related to seed color, although this is specific to geographic location. For example, the white-seeded varieties in the Sudan have a lower oil content than the red-seeded varieties (Bedigian and Harlan 1983), but in Ethiopia white or light-colored seeds usually have more oil than dark-colored seeds (Seegeler 1989).

Seed color differences are also economically significant. In West Bengal, white-seeded sesame is sold at a price at least 30 percent higher than that of brown-seeded or black-seeded varieties because of its higher oil content and greater culinary utility (Chakraborty, Maiti, and Chatterjee 1984). But appreciation of sesame by seed color can also be cultural: The Japanese, for example, prefer black-seeded varieties (Y. Kakehashi, personal communication, 1995), whereas the Sudanese prefer white-seeded ones.

In a collection of sesame plants from around the world, tested by D. M. Yermanos and colleagues (1972), the mean oil content in 721 samples was 53.1 percent; the oil was clear and colorless in 47.4 percent of the samples and light green in 37.2 percent, with the remaining samples dark green or brown. Short plants tended to have colorless oil, whereas tall plants had light green oil, and early plants had higher seed oil content. Earliness, yellow seed color, and large seed size were associated with a lower iodination value. However, Y. K. Sharma, A. D. Deodhar, and S. K. Gangrade (1975) reported no relationship between oil content and iodination values, free fatty acids, and carbohydrate content.

Fatty acids. Sesame oil contains about 80 percent unsaturated fatty acids, with oleic acid and linoleic acid predominating and present in approximately equal amounts (Lyon 1972). Sesame has more unsaturated fatty acids than many other vegetable oils, and its higher proportion of unsaturated to saturated fatty acids makes it a potentially important dietary source of essential fatty acids. Linoleic acid is required for cell membranes, for transportation of cholesterol in the bloodstream, and for blood clotting (reviewed in Salunkhe et al. 1991).

Antioxidants. Sesame oil is remarkably stable because of its natural antioxidants, sesamin and sesamolin, two compounds not found in any other oil (Bedigian, Seigler, and Harlan 1985).These are phenylpropanoid lignans and serve to protect against rancidity (Weiss 1971; Salih 1993), which may be one reason that sesame is nicknamed the “Queen of Oilseeds” Other unsaponifiable substances in sesame oil include sterols, triterpenes, pigments, and tocopherols.


The press cake remaining after the oil is expressed is approximately half the initial seed weight and high in protein. C. K. Lyon (1972) reported a protein content range of 17 to 32 percent. Although low in lysine, sesame proteins are especially rich in the essential amino acids methionine and tryptophan, and sesame meal flour is recommended as an excellent source of methionine-rich proteins (Villegas, González, and Calderón 1968). These can be a valuable supplement to pulse proteins, such as those in beans or chickpeas, which contain adequate amounts of lysine but are usually deficient in sulfur-containing amino acids (Fernández de Campoy 1981). S. A. Godfrey, B. J. Frances, and C. S. Kamara (1976) have suggested a combination of cowpea (deficient in methionine) and sesame to overcome the problem of limiting amino acids.


The carbohydrate content of sesame seeds (21 to 25 percent) is comparable to that of peanuts and higher than that of soybeans (Joshi 1961). D. J.Wankhede and R. N. Tharanathan (1976) have reported that sesame contains 5 percent sugars—d-glucose, d-galactose, dfructose, sucrose, raffinose, stachyose, planteose, and sesamose – as well as higher homologues of the planteose series.

Minerals and Vitamins

Sesame seeds are a good source of calcium, phosphorus, and iron. Nearly one-half to two-thirds of the calcium in the seed is present as oxalate, and a major part of it is located in the outer husk of the seed. The seeds are often dehulled for food use; thus, the oxalate does not interfere with the absorption of calcium. Sesame seeds contain high levels of thiamine, ribof lavin, and nicotinic acid (Tabekhia and Mohammed 1971). When made into sesame butter, they lose 52.5 percent of their thiamine and 50.2 percent of their nicotinic acid. The oil is rich in vitamin E.

Minor Constituents

Sesame contains among the highest levels of phytate found in nature (Boland, Garner, and O’Dell 1975). In foods, phytate can be detrimental to the absorption of trace elements such as zinc, presumably through formation of a stable insoluble complex that does not release zinc to the absorption sites in the intestinal mucosa. It is conceivable that the indigestible phytate-protein complexes could make zinc and other nutrients even less biologically available. In attempting to isolate and characterize the phytate, B. L. O’Dell and A. de Boland (1976) found that it was not readily extracted by neutral aqueous solvents because it exists as an insoluble magnesium complex.

While studying the natural occurrence of Fusarium toxins in feedstuffs, C. J. Mirocha and colleagues (1976) reported, for the first time, the natural occurrence of zearalenone in sesame seed. The presence of aflatoxin B1 was sought in 292 samples of seeds other than peanuts, and sesame was among the 8 found to contain it, at 0.06 mg per kg (Monacelli et al. 1976).

In addition, unhulled sesame contains 1 to 2 percent oxalic acid (Lyon 1972), which can be removed by decortication.

Changes Effected by Processing


Sesame seed is used as a nourishing food as well as a flavoring agent, and its characteristic flavor is developed by dry-roasting the dehulled material. S. N. Chaudhry (1988) investigated the chemical changes in protein quality induced by roasting at various temperatures. He determined that optimal roasting of sesame (with respect to f lavor and oil quality) required a temperature of 200° C for a duration of one hour. G.-C. Yen and S.-L. Shyu (1989), however, concluded that sesame oil prepared under optimum processing conditions meant roasting at 200° C for 30 minutes.


Sesame oil can be extracted from the whole seeds by several different processes (Johnson and Raymond 1964). Chaudhry (1988), who compared press-extracted to solvent-extracted oil (from roasted sesame seeds), reported that press extraction can release impurities (such as pigments and metal ions) that could react with the oil, resulting in complex formation. Solvent extraction, on the other hand, can cause the loss of desirable flavoring compounds during the evaporation of the solvent. A method of crushing sesame seeds for oil extraction is described in Law’s Grocer’s Manual, published about 1892:

Sesame is also widely cultivated in Syria, where, in preparing the oil, the grain is soaked in water for 24 hrs, and then placed in an oblong pot, coated with cement, on which two men work a wooden hammer of 20 lb. weight. …Efforts are not made to mash the kernels. The skins are separated in a tub of water, salted to a degree sufficient to float an egg. The bran sinks, while the kernels remain on the surface. The sesame seeds are now broiled in an oven, and sent to the mill to be ground. From the millstone the oil drops into a jar, and is thick, of a dark yellow colour, and sweet (quoted in David 1970: 54).


Sesame seeds are extremely powerful allergens, and sensitized persons may suffer urticaria, Quinke’s edema, asthma, and even anaphylaxis (Kägi and Wüthrich 1993). Although such reactions to sesame seeds are rare, the potential danger should be recognized, especially in view of an increasing demand for vegetarian foods.


Sesame was cultivated in ancient India, Sumer, Egypt, and Anatolia and throughout the Greco-Roman world for its edible seed and for its oil (Bedigian 1985; Bedigian and Harlan 1986). It is often described as the oldest oilseed plant used by humans (Joshi 1961; Weiss 1971). There has been some confusion about its origin, however, that has been discussed by N. M. Nayar and K. L. Mehra (1970), Nayar (1976), and Dorothea Bedigian (1984).

A group of wild and weedy forms native to India and described as Sesamum orientale L. var. malabar-icum Nar. shows close morphological, genetic, and phytochemical affinities to the cultivar. Bedigian (1988) and colleagues (Bedigian, Seigler, and Harlan 1985; Bedigian, Smyth, and Harlan 1986) have provided evidence to support the theory that domesticated sesame arose from this progenitor on the Indian subcontinent. D. Zohary and M. Hopf (1994) concurred with Bedigian and J. R. Harlan (1986) that the botanical evidence supports a relatively late introduction of sesame into the Near East and the Mediterranean region. The genus is restricted to the Indian subcontinent, where there are only a few wild species, and to Africa south of the Sahara, where there are numerous wild species.

The Archaeological Record

The Indian Subcontinent: Harappa

The oldest known remains of sesame seeds were found at the Indus Valley civilization site of Harappa (Vats 1940), in Pakistan, where excavators uncovered “a quantity of lumped and burnt Sesamum ” specimens. M. S. Vats (1940) dated the sesame to about 3500 to 3050 B.C. but this was before the advent of radiocarbon dating, and the dates are probably much too early (see Bedigian 1985 and Bedigian and Harlan 1986 for reviews of the evidence and its archaeological context).The Indus Valley, however, is probably the area where the plant was first cultivated.

The Preclassical Near East

Mesopotamia. To date, no sesame seeds have been recovered from excavations in Mesopotamia.

Egypt: King Tutankhamen’s Tomb. The discovery of sesame seed remains associated with the burial of King Tutankhamen (around 1350 B.C.) pushes back the date of the earliest record for sesame seeds in the Near East (Vartavan 1990). Some 30 boxes of plant remains from his tomb were stored at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, England, where botanist Leonard Boodle worked on cataloging these specimens until his death in the 1930s.

Recently, Christian L. T. de Vartavan, a graduate student, had the good fortune of being allowed to go through these boxes to examine the contents. A letter to Bedigian from Mr. Vartavan, dated July 20, 1988, stated that there were 60 milliliters (ml) of sesame seeds, which were the main ingredients of one of the many containers in the tomb filled with food, drinks, ointments, perfumes, and oils. Vartavan viewed these seeds as “the most striking find” among the remains from the room designated by Howard Carter (who discovered the tomb in 1927) as the “Annexe” to Tutankhamen’s tomb. These seeds from the Annexe represent the only find of sesame ever recorded from investigations of ancient Egypt, as well as the earliest sesame from the Near East and from Africa.

Armenia: Karmir Blur. Remains of sesame seeds dated between 900 and 600 B.C. have been found at this early Iron Age Urartian site on the outskirts of Yerevan. Four large jars containing carbonized sesame seed were excavated. Elaborate devices for the extraction of sesame oil indicate that the Urartians processed the seeds for oil (Piotrovskii 1950, 1952; Kassabian 1957; Bedigian 1985; Bedigian and Harlan 1986).

Jordan: Deir Alla. Some 200 sesame seeds dating from about 800 B.C. were uncovered in Iron Age beds at this site in Jordan, according to R. Neef (1989).

Turkey. Sesame seeds were recovered at the Gordion ruins in Anatolia during the 1989 excavation of the “Destruction Level” (around 700 B.C.). The seeds are from a pure sample (about 250 ml) from within a pot that was found on the floor (along with other pots containing pure wheat, barley, and lentil). Massive burning and the collapse of the roof seems to have effectively sealed the contents on the floor (N. Miller, personal communication, 1990).

Early Literary Records

The Indian Subcontinent

The fact that the Sanskrit words for oil and for sesame seed are the same suggests that sesame may be one of the earliest oil-bearing plants to have been brought under cultivation (Sampson 1936: 221). One of these words, tíla, has been employed in religious ceremonies from very early times. It was regarded as holy (Hopkins 1968), and an offering of tílaseeds was considered effective in removing sins (Gupta 1971). Offerings of water and sesame were said to free an individual of all debts to his ancestors.

The Near East

Mesopotamia. Early Old Babylonian (OB) documents contain numerous references to sesame oil (Simmons 1978).Texts list the expenditure of sesame oil “for the inner bolt,””for the fire offering,””for the prince,””for the royal purification rite,””for the inner bolt on the day of Akitu,” “for the sizkur divine name,” “for the Elunum divine name,” “for the regular offering,” and “for anointing the banner.”These are all special cultic applications that employed the oil to lubricate, soap, or fuel someone or something, almost certainly at springtime festivals (W. Doyle, personal communication, 1984).

The article for ellu in the Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute, Chicago (better known as the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary [CAD], ed. Oppenheim et al. 1958) provides as one definition:”[C]lean, pure in connection with oil, etc. … fine oil … sweet oil … pure sesame oil, sesame oil of the first [pressing],” used for anointing and making perfume. Another definition is:”[H]oly, sacred.”

The šmaššammū article prepared for the CAD’s “š” volume (Reiner ed. 1989: 301-7) mentions several texts that help to identify šmaššammū as sesame. The article itself contains many references to oil pressing, including one text (Keiser 1917) that specifie šmaššammū (whit šmaššammū) The texts concerning white-seeded šmaššammū provide evidence of considerable importance in helping to distinguish flax from sesame because there are no flax cultivars with white seeds (J. Miller, personal communication, 1984).

Egypt. The earliest Egyptian textual reference to sesame seems to have been in the Tebtunis Papyri 3 (Part 2, No. 844) that dates from 256 B.C. (Lucas 1962: 336). H. Deines and H. Grapow (1959) indicated that sesame was used as a medicine. Pliny (1938: 15.7.31) wrote that a large amount of oil in Egypt was obtained from gingelly (sesamum).

The difficulty is to identify the ancient words for sesame. There is a striking linguistic resemblance of the Mesopotamian word šmaššammū to related Near Eastern terms, such as the Arabic word simsim and the name of a plant with edible seeds that is transcribed smsmt (Germer 1979). V. Loret (1892) regarded the Coptic name for sesame, oke, as Egyptian in origin. Another word from the hieroglyphs, ake, referred to a plant that produced oil and had seeds that were used medicinally. Ake, then, could be the Egyptian name for sesame (Loret 1892). But whether this later became the highest-quality oil, which was nhh, that one encounters from the nineteenth dynasty (1320 to 1200 B.C.) onward, remains a mystery. The assertion by some authors that nhh was Ricinus oil has been disputed on the grounds that castor oil is unpalatable (Keimer 1924) and also toxic.

Classical Greece

Sesame was cultivated extensively in the Greco-Roman world, but more for its edible seed than for its oil. The writings of Greek travelers and historians make it clear that sesame was well known in Mesopotamia by the time of the Iron Age, which began in about the eighteenth century B.C. About 300 years later, Herodotus (1928) observed that the only oil the Babylonians used was from sesame.

The cultivation of sesame in ancient Armenia was documented in the fifth century B.C. by Xenophon, who wrote: “In (western Armenia) … there was a scented unguent in abundance that they used instead of olive oil, made from pork fat, sesame seed, bitter almond and turpentine. There was a sweet oil also to be found, made of the same ingredients.” Xenophon also placed sesame in two other parts of Anatolia. One was Cilicia – “[t]his plain produces sesame plentifully, also panic and millet and barley and wheat” (1901: I.ii.22) – and the other was “Calpe Haven in Asiatic Thrace,” farther west. “Calpe lies exactly midway between Byzantium and Heracleia,” has “good loamy soil … produces barley and wheat, pulses of all sorts, millet and sesame, figs in ample supply, numerous vines … indeed everything else except olives” (I.ii.22).

Imperial Rome

Cultivation requirements. Columella, in the first century A.D., reported accurately that “it [sesame] usually requires loamy soil, but it thrives no less well in rich sand or in mixed ground. … But I have seen this same seed sown in the months of June and July in districts of Cilicia and Syria, and harvested during autumn, when it was fully ripe” (1941: 2.10.18). He also wrote that “[i]n some districts [of Anatolia] such as Cilicia and Pamphylia, sesame is sown this month [late July to August]; but in the damp regions of Italy it can be done in the last part of the month of June” (11.2.56). This report would seem to indicate that, like the Babylonians, the Cilicians and Pamphylians grew sesame as a second crop after harvesting barley or another earlier crop.

Pliny, also writing in the first century A.D., said that gingelly [Sesamum] and Italian millets were summer grains and that gingelly came from India, where it was also used for making oil; and the color of the grain was white. He appears to have known sesame well. His advice for soaking the seeds prior to milling is reminiscent of the practice in Urartu: “Gingelly is to be steeped in warm water and spread out on a stone, and then rolled well and the stone then dipped in cold water so that the chaff may float to the top, and the chaff again spread out in the sun on a linen sheet, before being rolled again” (Pliny 1938: 18.22.98). In addition, E. L. Sturtevant (1972) stated that the Romans ground sesame seeds with cumin to make a pasty spread for bread.

Urartu (Armenia)

Based upon his participation in the excavation of an oil-extraction workshop at the Urartian site of Karmir Blur near Yerevan, Z. Kassabian (1957: 113) reconstructed Urartian techniques for sesame oil production as follows:

Sesame reserves were brought to the oil press. They were washed in a basin-shaped stone container, 79 cm in diameter, carved from a block of tufa.The basin joined a cylindrical pipe made of the same stone, that allowed waste liquid to drain out beyond the citadel. Sesame seeds were soaked to ease the removal of the tegument. After maceration and thorough pressing, the sesame was moved in a semi-moist condition to the oil press (workroom #2). Here they pounded the sesame using mortars and pestles.

Details about the plant remains and tools uncovered at Karmir Blur have been summarized by Bedigian and Harlan (1986: 146-7). The workrooms were furnished with fireplaces for parching the seed. Other finds included clay storage jars 1.5 meters tall, cakes of pressed sesame (the solid residue that remains after seeds are crushed for oil), and stone mortars, pestles, and graters.


Language. Gingelly, a name for sesame that is still often used today in India and Europe, is derived from the Arabicjuljulân (Dymock et al. 1893; Gove 1967). Spaniards say ajonjoli, the French jugleone, and present-day Arabic medicinal and botanical works employ both al-juljulân and simsim. The word juljulân was in use by the eighth century, as evidenced in a poem (quoted in Lisan al-‘Arab [1981]) by Waddâh el Kubani-al Yamani (died 709) (Faroukh 1965): “The people laughed and said: ‘The poetry of Waddâh the Kinanite!’ My poetr y is only salt mixed with juljulân. ”

Clearly, juljulân had the meaning of tiny seeds, and sesame was a plant proverbial for its heavy production of tiny seeds (Charles Perry, personal communication, 1995). But juljulân is usually defined as “sesame before the seeds are removed,” that is, the capsule. Abu al Gauth said, ” Al-juljulân is sesame in its hull [or peel], before it is harvested.” Charles Perry (personal communication, 1995), a specialist in Near Eastern languages, has discussed the relationships among the various terms. He wrote: “The Hebrew shumshom (mentioned in the Mishna but not in the Bible), Aramaic shushma, Armenian shusham, Turkish susam, Arabic simsim, Greek sesamon, and the rest go back to the word recorded in Sumerian (though whether it’s really of Sumerian origin or borrowed from Akkadian, the Semitic language spoken by the Sumerians’ neighbors, is a moot question; there were borrowings in both directions). This is the usual Arabic word for sesame. For instance, in the Arabian Nights, when Ali Baba says “open, sesame’ he says iftah, ya simsim. ”

Symbolism in legend. The Sudan Department of Agriculture and Forests and Department of Economics and Trade bulletin on sesame (1938) opens with a concise version of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”:

When the robbers had departed Ali went to the door of the cave and pronounced the magic words he had heard them use,”OPEN SESAME.” The door opened and he went inside and the door closed behind him. So astonished was he at the sight of the treasures in the cave and so absorbed in contemplation of them that when at last he desired to leave the cave he had quite forgotten the formula “OPEN SESAME.” In vain he cried aloud Open wheat, Open barley, Open maize, Open lentils; none of these availed and the door remained shut.

The significance of sesame in Arab culture is suggested by the fact that it was chosen as “a magical means of commanding access” (Arulrajan 1964). Once, sesame was thought to have mystical powers, and for some it still retains a magical quality. In fact, “open sesame” has become a common cliché that is still used today. But the question “why sesame?” remains, and the answer might be that the high-quality sesame oil could have been thought to act magically to oil locks and open doors; in addition, sesame capsules do dehisce spontaneously (magically?) to release their seeds.


Symbolism in legend. Another example, this one of sesame employed as an omen, comparable to its usage in the magical incantation “Open Sesame,” occurs in the Iskandarnama (Book of Alexander), one of the Sharafnama, the “Book of Kings,” completed A.D. 1010. Accompanied by an illustration of a miniature of Alexander the Great feeding sesame seed to birds (Titley 1979: 8, 10-11), the story

relates the parleying and battle between Alexander the Great and Darius. The Sultanate Sharafnama in the British Library has a rare illustration of an episode in which Darius insulted Alexander by sending him a polo stick and ball and a bowl of sesame seed. Darius was angry because Alexander had not sent him gifts in the traditional manner and despatched a messenger to tell him so. Alexander equally angry replied that Darius had treasure enough already whereupon Darius sent him the polo stick and ball and a bowl of sesame seed saying that as Alexander behaved like a child he should have the playthings of a child. The sesame seed represented the countless soldiers in the great army Darius proposed to send against him. Alexander chose to interpret the gifts in another way and saw them as omens of victory. To him the polo ball represented the world (i.e. Darius’ possessions) which Alexander would draw towards himself with the stick (i.e. by means of his army) as in polo. He threw the seed to birds which pecked every grain from the ground and he told Darius that it would be thus that his soldiers would wipe out the army of Darius. He then sent the messenger back to Darius with a bowl of mustard seed as a symbol of his own soldiers. The miniature graphically portrays this incident with a flock of hoopoes, parrots, pigeons, starlings and crows pecking the grain watched by Alexander and his retinue while the polo sticks and bowl of remaining seed are in the background (Titley 1979: 10-11).


According to the Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu (1596) by Li Shih-Chen, a classic ancient Chinese herbal and medical treatise, sesame was brought from the West by General Chang Ch’ien during the Han dynasty (second century B.C.), probably via the Silk Route. The Chinese name tzuh-ma indicates introduction from overseas, and the Han dynasty was marked by expansion that opened China to things foreign, including foreign foods (Yü 1977: 80). Y. S. Yü has written that because sesame appears three times in the text, it seems to have been particularly important. Moreover, he suggests that the “barbarian grain food” (hu-fan) enjoyed by Emperor Ling (A.D. 168-88) was most likely grain food cooked with the flavorful sesame.

Yü (1977: 81) quotes another source (Ch’i 1949: 294-5): “Under the Later Han, a great variety of noodle foods were cooked, including boiled noodles, steamed buns (modern man-t’ou), and baked cakes with sesame seeds.” In T’ang times these were extremely popular foreign cakes, and a steamed variety containing sesame seeds was particularly well liked. In the capital city, these cakes were sold by foreign vendors – seemingly Iranians for the most part – on street corners (Hsiang 1957: 45-6, cited in Schafer 1977: 98). F. W. Mote listed sesame-oil noodles among a group of sacrificial food offerings made to ancestors during the Ming dynasty and suggested: “[W]e can assume that they reveal the tastes and food ideals of the former poor peasant family which now found itself the imperial family, and that the foods offered were also those actually eaten in the imperial household” (Mote 1977: 217).

Record of Modern Usage


Sesame is employed extensively in India, especially in the states of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. Among other things, the seeds, with rice and honey, are used to prepare funeral cakes (pindas) that are offered to the ancestors in the Sraddh ceremony by the Sapindas (Dymock et al. 1893). Tilanna, sesame-rice balls formed in the shape of cows, are offered to relatives and friends of the deceased after a funeral.This ritual is enacted to say a proper farewell to the departed, and, as mentioned, the offering of sesame seeds is considered effective in removing sins (Gupta 1971). Indeed, tilanjali is a derived word meaning “to bid a final good-bye/to leave” (Chaturvedi and Tiwari 1970).

There are also many other uses. According to Dymock et al. (1893: 26-7): “On certain festivals six acts are performed with sesame seeds, as an expiatory ceremony of great efficacy, by which the Hindus hope to obtain delivery from sin, poverty, and other evils, and secure a place in Indra’s heaven.” These acts are tilodvarti (“bathing in water containing the seeds”), tilasuayi (“anointing the body with the pounded seeds”), tilahomi (“making a burnt offering of the seeds”), tilaprada(“offering the seeds to the dead”), tilabhuj (“eating the seeds”), and tilavapi (“throwing out the seeds”). In proverbial language, a grain of sesame signifies the least quantity of anything. Examples of this usage are til chor so bajjar chor(“who steals a grain will steal a sack”) and til til ka hisab (“to exact the uttermost farthing”) (Dymock et al. 1893: 27).

S. M. Vaishampayan (personal communication, 1977) has noted that at the festival of “Makar Sankranti,” which takes place on January 14 (when the sun enters the Zodiac sign “Makar,” or Capricorn), the Hindus eat a composition of gur(brown sugar) and til, which they call tilkut. Among the Maharashrian Brahmins, elders offer sweetmeats made out of sesame seed and powdered sugar to youngsters, and bless them, saying: ” Tilghya, Gulghua and Gode bola, ” which means “have sesame sweets and be sweet with everybody.”

Donald Lawrence, Professor Emeritus of Botany at the University of Minnesota, who corresponded with this author about the uses of sesame in India, sent some beads from Pune, India (courtesy of Makarand S. Jawadekar), that are made of sesame seeds encrusted with sugar. Jawadekar, in a letter to Lawrence, dated February 9, 1986, wrote:”Newly wed brides wear, on January 14th, the necklace made out of these sugar-sesame beads – believed to bring good luck.”

The Middle East and North Africa

This region shares common foods and similar preparation methods as a result of a historically steady exchange of ideas as well as trade goods. The peoples of Arabia, of the emirates in the Persian Gulf, of Armenia, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria all prepare versions of hummus and baba gannouj, combining the flavors of chickpea and smoky eggplant with sesame paste, tahini, as well as sesame candies and biscuits.

The word for sesame in the Armenian dictionary (Yeran n.d.) is shushmah, not unlike the Sumerian word šamaššammū(confirmed by Charles Perry, personal communication, 1995). There are two versions of an Armenian coffee cake prepared with sesame. One is pagharch, a leavened bread in which the dough is folded with sweetened sesame paste.

Another version is a specialty item prepared just before Armenian Easter. A soft dough is allowed to rise to double its size, and a sesame mixture is brushed upon it. Then the dough is rolled like a slender jelly roll, which is finally coiled into a flat round circle and allowed to rise again before baking. Bread rings topped with sesame seed are sold everywhere in Turkey and take their name, simit, from simsim. In Morocco, sesame is known as jinjelan. It is used in Moroccan bread and desserts and, when toasted, the seeds are a popular garnish for chicken and lamb tagines.

In Sudan, sesame used for oil and seed constitutes one of the country’s food staples (Bedigian and Harlan 1983). An enormous genetic diversity of traditional sesame cultivars in Sudan seems to correspond with the region’s cultural diversity (Bedigian 1991). People are extremely fond of sesame as both a food and a metaphor for something small and precious. Sesame is used in the form of a solid cake blended with sugar, called tahneeya in the Sudan; the name for the sesame paste alone is taheena. Taheena is employed as a sauce, with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, or with tamia, a fried chickpea patty to which sesame seeds can be added.

Egypt takes 90 percent of Sudan’s exported sesame to make halvah. Rural growers in Sudan deliver their sesame seeds to oil presses called assara, powered by camels or engines (Sudan Department of Agriculture and Forests and Department of Economics and Trade 1938; Bedigian and Harlan 1986).

East Africa

Sesame, nyim, is one of the traditional crops of the Luo of western Kenya, and it is very likely that the crop arrived there when the first Luo migrated from the Sudan (Ogot 1967). Yet today, there is substantially less cultivation of sesame than there was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Most of the sesame for sale in western Kenya comes from Uganda, and such a decline in sesame cultivation is not a singular event. Similarly, finger millet, cal, which has historical significance for the Luo and was probably brought to Kenya by them during the earliest migrations from the Sudan, is now being replaced by maize, despite the fact that millet is more nutritious. Much of this has to do with British colonialism, which replaced sesame with corn oil or even less healthy hydrogenated shortenings.

When sesame is used in Kenya, it is pounded into a paste to be served with sweet potatoes or with local leafy greens. The paste can be diluted and used as a dip called dengo; it may also be added when cooking fish. A winja, combining black sesame seeds, finger millet, and dry beef cooked in sesame oil, is a special dish for a new son-in-law before his wedding.The dish is also used to appease spirits and to prevent lightning strikes – in short, to ward off harm.

China and the Far East

The Chinese considered sesame to be the best of the oilseeds, and their name for sesame oil (hsiang yu) means “fragrant oil.”According to Bray (1984: 524-5): “Not only does it have all the qualities mentioned in the Thien Kung Khai Wu, the expressed cake is a protein-rich livestock food (sometimes eaten, fermented, by humans in India and Java), and in China it was recognized as an excellent fertilizer.” B. Cost (1989) called sesame seed oil “a contender for the world’s most seductively flavored oil, a seasoning fundamental to the cuisines of China and Japan. Like the Chinese sesame paste, the oil is pressed from roasted seeds. Cooking with it is a waste, since it loses its flavor over high heat and is expensive.”

Regarding sesame seed paste, Cost (1989) has written that (unlike the Middle Eastern tahini) the Chinese paste is made from roasted, rather than raw, sesame seeds.As a flavorful peanut butter-like sauce, it is used mostly in sauces and dressings for cold dishes and salads, but occasionally in marinades. It is also a constituent of shichimi (“seven spices”), consisting of the dried orange berry of an indigenous ash (related to the Sichuan peppercorn, and ground dried chillies), flakes of dried orange peel, white poppy seeds, sesame seeds, black hemp seeds, and bits of seaweed.This is a mixture that can be sprinkled over a variety of dishes.

Japanese sesame tools. Y. Kakehashi (personal communication, 1995) has indicated that, in Japan, fresh sesame seeds are toasted prior to adding them to a dish to enhance its flavor. The Japanese use a clay container, designed specifically for this purpose, called goma iri (goma is sesame). It is glazed inside and is approximately 10 centimeters in diameter and 20 centimeters in length, including the handle. The shape is hollow (like a rubber tire) except for its completely flat bottom; the sides fold inward toward the open center, preventing the seeds from escaping as they pop during the parching. The toasted seeds are collected by pouring them out of the conical funnel-shaped hollow handle.There is also a special ceramic mortar, suribachi, for grinding sesame seeds. It has corrugations inside that allow gentle crushing to take place.


Mary Tolford Wilson (1964) has noted the mercantilistic encouragement the British provided for cultivating sesame in their American colonies.The hope was that sesame oil might replace the olive oil they imported from European rivals, and thus sesame became one of those commodities whose colonial production the British encouraged. By contrast, the use of sesame was discouraged and even prohibited in nineteenth-century France in order to protect local rapeseed-growing interests, a policy that hints at the popularity of sesame at that time.

The United States

If the British contemplated the production of sesame oil in America, it may have been Africans who brought the seed to their attention. One name applied to sesame in the southern United States is benne. Lorenzo Turner (1969: 62) has compiled a comprehensive list of Africanisms in the Gullah dialect, in which bene is a feminine personal noun that means sesame in Bambara (French West Africa) and Wolof (Senegal and Gambia). Jessica Harris (personal communication, 1995), the culinary historian whose specialty is African-American foods, was astonished to learn this fact. She has not seen many examples of African-American words for foods in which the original language can be so specifically identified.

It is the case, however, that the contributions of African slaves to crop introductions in the Americas have rarely received sufficient recognition. In their free time, slaves tended their own gardens, where they grew vegetables, including greens and “presumably African favorites such as okra, sorghum, black-eye peas, eggplant and benne seed” (Hess 1992: 8).These crops were very likely brought from Africa during the slave trade, along with yams, watermelons, and indigo.

That sesame was in colonial America by 1730 may be seen in a document in the Records in the British Public Record Office Pertaining to South Carolina. A letter from one Thomas Lowndes, dated August 26, 1730, reads:

My Lords, a planter in Carolina sent me some time ago a parcel of seed, desiring I would try it, and see of what use it would be, for if it turn’d to account South Carolina could with ease produce any quantity of it. By an experiment I found twenty one pounds weight of seed produced near nine pounds of good oyl, of which more than six pounds were cold drawn and the rest by fire. The name of the seed is Sesamum it grows in great abundance in Africa and Asia, and the inhabitants of those parts eat it, as well as use it for several other purposes. Pliny and many other good authors ancient and modern treat of this seed. It rejoyces in the Pine Barren Land (which is generally a light sandy soil)… . This seed will make the Pine Barren Land of equal value with the rice land … and is for many purposes even prefereble to oyl olive.

Some decades later, on May 25, 1774, the Georgia Gazette printed an early shipping record of sesame (page 2, column 2) aboard the ship Savannah, which carried 500 pounds of “benny” along with 20,000 pounds of sago, 200 gallons of soy, 200 pounds of vermicelli, 1,000 pounds of groundnuts, and a 10-gallon keg of sassafras blossom.

The most famous figure of America’s early years to be interested in sesame was Thomas Jefferson, who earnestly recommended sesame growing to his friends (Wilson 1964). Jefferson’s “Garden Book,” which is the richest single source on the crop and records plantings of sesame grown at Monticello as long as the book was kept (to 1824), was edited and published by E. M. Betts in 1944. In it is a letter from William Few of New York to Jefferson, dated January 11, 1808, that was not transcribed by Betts but cited this way: “Tells Jefferson how to extract oil from Beni seeds and the history of its introduction to America.” A facsimile of the original manuscript was provided to this author by the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Here is the text of the unpublished document:

When introduced into the southern states? We have no certain account of a tradition of its introduction. The Negroes are well acquainted with it and fond of cultivating it. It was probably introduced from the Slave Coast, but as we know that it was cultivated up the Mediterranean in very early time, it is possible that we may have received it from that quarter. If the correct orthography of the name could be ascertained it might determine the question.We know that we received our rice from both of these sources and it may have been the same case with the benne.When it was introduced it can be difficult to ascertain as it has never interested us as an object of agriculture or curiosity. We only know that the oldest of our inhabitants remember it from their earliest days.

The Caribbean

Trinidad. Bene (sesame) is included in the lexicon of Wolof contributions to the language in Trinidad (Warner-Lewis 1991). Africans in nineteenth-century Trinidad had a ceremony of thanksgiving and ancestor intercession called the saraka, during which animal sacrifice and offerings of unsalted food were made. Ritual plant ingredients for the ceremony included kola nut (sent as a token to guests with their invitations), rum, stout and wine, bene (called ziziwi), black-eyed peas and rice, corn cooked with olive oil, and bread. Similarly, a Yoruba wedding in central Trinidad was characterized by a feast that included bene made into balls and sugar cake (Warner-Lewis 1991). Rice, black-eyed peas, potato, and grated, dried cassava also formed part of the menu.

Jamaica. That Africa was the source of sesame reaching Jamaica is reflected in a local name, acknowledged in a publication by J. Lunan as early as 1814. Sesame was called ” sesamum Africanum, ” brought to Jamaica under the name of zezegary, and Lunan reported that “the first time I saw the plant, it was growing in a negro’s plantation, who told me, they ground the seed between two stones, and eat it as they do corn. Their seed-vessels, [are] full of small white seeds, which the negroes call soonga, or wolongo. The oil that is drawn from it is called sergilim oil. The seed is often mixed and ground with coco, to make chocolate” (Lunan 1814: 252). Sesame was prized as a source of oil, with good reason:

[T]here are few which more deserve to be extensively cultivated into general domestic use, [to replace] that abominable rancid butter imported hither from Europe. Nothing but the grossest prejudice, in favor of old habits, can influence the inhabitants to persevere in the importation of that unwholesome, nauseous stuff, and to swallow it every day with their food, when they may supply themselves with so fine, nourishing and wholesome an oil, as the sesamum, for an ingredient in their pastry; nor are they less blamable, for continuing to import the olive oil, which is generally rancid before it arrives and fitter for perukes [wigs] than salads (Long 1774: 809).