Sesame seeds are the seeds of Sesamum indicum, an annual tropical plant which is probably native to Africa. The sesame plant is cultivated throughout Asia as well, and the seeds play a vital role in many ethnic cuisines. These seeds are used whole, ground into pastes such as tahini, or pressed for their rich, nutty oil. They are often available in all of these forms from large grocery stores or Asian specialty stores. Whole seeds should be stored in a cool dry place in an airtight container when they are not in use, and oil should be refrigerated.
In what is believed to be the earliest recorded use of a spice, an Assyrian myth stated that the gods drank wine made from sesame seeds the night before they created the earth. These seeds also have their place in other mythology and stories, suggesting that they have been used for over 5,000 years in cooking, and that they were greatly valued in some societies. These seeds appear to go rancid less readily than many other oil-containing seeds and nuts, making them highly shelf-stable without the benefit of refrigeration.
The sesame plant has white to pink flowers which develop within eight weeks of planting. Once fertilized, seeds will appear in four to six weeks. When they are ripe, sesame pods burst open to reveal the seeds inside, leading to the famous quote “Open Sesame.” The seeds range in color from white to inky black, with white seeds producing more mild, pale oil, and black seeds yielding dark, intensely flavored oil. Black sesame seeds are especially popular in Japan and China, where they are often used whole as a garnish. When eaten whole, the seeds are rich in manganese, copper, calcium, and vitamins B1 and E. The oil alone is also rich in vitamins B1 and E, and is sometimes integrated into skin care products.
The rich, nutty flavor of sesame seeds can be found in food around the world. Toasted, the whole seeds can be sprinkled on a variety of dishes for extra crunch and flavor. They are also used raw in some dishes. Ground sesame paste is used in both sweet and savory dishes, and is a primary ingredient in both hummus and halvah, two popular Middle Eastern dishes. The oil from white and brown sesame seeds is used as a cooking and flavoring oil, and black sesame seed oil may be used in small amounts for flavoring as well.