The raw or toasted seeds of Sesamum indicum offer a pleasantly sharp, somewhat nutty flavor that favors their use as both a spice and a cooking oil. In fact, the seeds are 60 percent oil by weight, and the sesame plant may be the source of the world’s first cultivated oil seed, having been domesticated on the Indian subcontinent well before the written records of all Eurasian and African civilizations. An annual herb with lovely tubular flowers, it produces small, teardrop-shaped seeds that come in all shades of white, beige, pale red, brown, and jet black.

Most of the wild relatives of sesame are found in Africa, but one particular wild ancestor, S. orientale var. malabaricum, is restricted to the Indian subcontinent. The oldest sesame seeds found in an archaeological context come from the Indus Valley site at Harappa, now in Pakistan, which dates back four thousand to forty-six hundred years. This discovery appears to indicate that sesame was domesticated more than four and a half millennia ago somewhere on the Indian subcontinent, and probably spread from there to Mesopotamia within five hundred years (2000 BCE). Sesame seeds were pressed into the only oil used by the Babylonians, and reached Egyptians by 1500 BCE. By 200 BCE, sesame had been grown in China long enough to become a prevalent crop. Curiously, much of the remaining diversity of sesame’s ancient varieties occurs between India and China. The many Chinese varieties spread westward into Central Asia along the Silk Roads. And of course, black sesame seeds coat many forms of sushi in both Japan and the United States.

My fellow ethnobotanist and long-time friend Dorothea Bedigian has called sesame a wanderwort, for various forms of its name became so widespread through early trade that it is difficult to establish its linguistic origin. Oddly, sesame seems to have come out of the Malabar Coast to reach Mesopotamia during the Early Bronze Age as taila or tila, a generic term in ancient Sanskrit that was used in northern India to refer to the oiliness of any seed. Along the same line, the Akkadian term šamaššammȗ means “oily” or “fatty seed.” The later related Assyrian term shaman shammi may have given rise to the Aramaic shumshema (also written šumšȇm), the ancient Arabic as-samn, and the modern Arabic as-simsim. The Hebrew term, sumsum, is similar. All connote oily seeds.

Today’s Modern Persian konjed is derived from the Middle Persian kunjid, which may have its roots in the classic Armenian kȕncȕt or the Turkic kȕnji. The related Hindi igingi may echo the rattle of the seeds in their dried capsules, as well. It may also be related to the ancient Arabic noun for “echo,” jaljala, which undoubtedly gave rise to the Spanish ajonjoli and the Maltese gulglien.

In the eastern reaches of its historical range, the Chinese terms hu ma, or “foreign hemp,” and zhima, or “oily hemp,” have long been used. In Africa, benne, benniseed, and similar words are used in many dialects and languages, and in the southern United States, benne continues to refer to sesame plants as a cover crop and wildlife forage.

The nuttiness of the tiny waferlike seeds is intensified by toasting, and there are sesame oils for those who enjoy that intensity and those who do not. The oil pressed from the untoasted seeds is pale but fragrant and is good for baking and for stir-frying and other high-heat cooking because it has a high smoke point. Toasted sesame oil, which is amber and has a robust flavor, is ideal for dressing salads or for adding to already-cooked dishes. It is seldom used for frying, as it has a low smoke point. The third “oil” product from sesame is the viscous paste known as as-simsim bi tahini in the Arabic-speaking world and as tahini elsewhere.

One of my earliest memories is of watching my Lebanese grandfather carefully whip tahini together with lemon juice to coat some fish he was frying. When my grandfather died, my father took up this same ritual with equal diligence. Both men regularly gifted me the brittle but delicious candy made from toasted sesame mixed with caramelized sugar that was distributed by the Sahadi family out of Brooklyn, New York. My love for this candy was one of the motivations that prompted me to become partner in farming sesame amid ten acres of heritage grains and beans in Amado, Arizona.

Crushed and sweetened sesame seeds are used for making another kind of paste that is dried and hardened into the popular confection known as halvah from eastern Anatolia through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine. That same term, however, is used for a broader range of confections—some with sesame and some without—from Egypt through Morocco.

Throughout the Islamic and Jewish worlds, sesame seeds are sprinkled on round breads made with bran—both leavened and unleavened—called semit, or in Spanish, pan de semita. They remain popular from Turkey through the Levant and to North Africa. During the Spanish Inquisition, the consumption of these breads was officially banned because of their cultural importance to Jews and Muslims in Spain as well as in its Latin American colonies. Of course, the bakers and their sesame bread went underground, only to reemerge in places as distant and divergent as San Antonio, Texas; Magdalena, in Sonora, Mexico; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and San Ignacio, in Baja California, Mexico.

 Although Jewish historians have claimed that the presence of sesame-laced pan de semita in Mexico and the American Southwest is an indicator of crypto-Jewish presence, this bread could have also been introduced and sustained as a tradition by crypto-Muslims and Catholics descended from the heterogeneous populace of Andalusia. Indeed, one might argue that sesame seeds have accompanied Semitic peoples and others wherever they have migrated. Perhaps I am living evidence of that phenomenon. After occasionally growing a few sesame plants in my garden over the years, in 2011, I grew a small patch of sesame in southern Arizona, as just described, so that its seeds could be offered to artisanal bakers in my own adopted homeland. 

Bedigian, Dorothea. “History of the Cultivation and Use of Sesame.” Introduction to Sesame: The Genus Sesamum. Edited by Dorothea Bedigian. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2011.
Gambrelle, Fabienne. The Flavor of Spices. Paris: Flammarion, 2008.
Image Credit:
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press