February 23, 2005
Sesame seeds are believed to be one of the first condiments to grace ancient tables. They’re also thought to be one of the first edible oil crops.
The English word "sesame" can be traced to Arabic "simsim," Coptic "semsem" and early Egyptian "semsent." The earliest recorded use of a condiment, which happens to be sesame, comes from an Assyrian myth that claims the gods drank sesame wine the night before they created the earth. More than 5,000 years ago, the Chinese burned sesame oil as both a light source and to make soot for their ink blocks. African slaves brought sesame seeds, which they called benné seeds, to America, where they became a popular ingredient in Southern dishes.
Probably the most widely known reference is "Open sesame!" the magic words used by Ali Baba to open the treasure cave in the classic tale "1001 Nights." If you believe this is the actual phrase (as opposed to "open, says me!"), the following explanation may help to explain the origin: When heated, sesame seed pods burst open with a spectacular "pop," much like the loud bang of a vault or heavy door springing open.
Sesame seeds are available packaged in the spice or baking section of your market and in bulk in Middle Eastern markets. Don’t purchase more than you can use in about a month, as the seeds’ high oil content can cause them to turn rancid quickly. Sesame oil, on the other hand, is very stable and will keep for a long time without turning rancid, even in hot weather.
To enhance the nutlike flavor of sesame seeds, spread them on a baking sheet and toast in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring often.
If you are concerned that sesame seeds are about 50 percent fat by weight, perhaps you can find relief in the fact that the fat is the healthy unsaturated type, with no cholesterol. Sesame seeds and sesame oil also have lots of magnesium, an important mineral for maintaining the nervous system.
Four ounces of sesame seeds — about 8 tablespoons or a large helping of hummus — has as much calcium as 4 ounces of milk. We can actually see ourselves eating that much tahini, a sesame seed paste.
Some studies show that sesamin, a fiber found only in sesame seeds, has an antioxidant effect that can inhibit the absorption of cholesterol and the production of cholesterol in the liver. The seeds are pretty high in vitamin A, E and protein, the oil less so.