Sesame, also known as “benne,” is a tender, large-leaved, Asian annual grown here in Bonnefont garden. Sesame has been cultivated for some five thousand years and was known to many cultures in antiquity. Although the plant is somewhat rangy and coarse in habit, the tubular flower (above, left) is attractive. The immature green pods (above, right), which will split and spill out their seeds when ripe, contain one of the world’s oldest domesticated oilseeds. The seeds also have a long history of use as a seasoning. Photographs by Carly Still.
A cultivated plant of fabulous antiquity, sesame (Sesamum indicum) is known as simsim in Arabic, susam in Turkish, sesam in German, sésame in French, sesamo in Italian, and sesame in Spanish. Called sesemt by the ancient Egyptians, it was also grown in Ethiopia in very early times. Sesame seeds were taken from West Africa to America by slave traders; the name “benne” derives from the West African benni. Sesame had long been grown in India and Persia, and was introduced to China by the end of the fifth century A.D.
From left to right: Flax, sesame, and poppy are the world’s oldest oilseed crops. Sesame seed is very high both in protein and in fat content; some varieties are more than fifty percent oil.
Sesame seeds were known in the Aegean in prehistoric times, and the plant is recorded as sa-sa-ma on Linear B tablets found in the palace of Mycenae. Herodotus mentions the Babylonian cultivation of sesame; this is corroborated by a clay tablet from the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, which contains an entry for sesame oil.
In Book II of the De Materia Medica, Dioscorides classes sesame with cereals like millet and wheat; he notes that the Egyptians made an oil from sesame, but dilates on the medicinal benefits and drawbacks of both the seed and the plant, which he considers hurtful to the stomach. (He does not think the odor sesame imparts to the breath is pleasant, and objects to the way the seeds stick between the teeth.) He acknowledges that sesame is good for inflammation of the ears and griefs of the colon, but especially for inflammations of the eyes. The fifteenth-century herbal Hortus Sanitatis repeats Dioscorides’s assertions, and adds that sesame suppresses nausea and, when combined with white hellebore, purges the excess of black bile that causes insanity. (For more on hellebores, see “Hell Flowers,” March 24, 2010. For more on the theory of disease as an imbalance of body fluids, see last week’s post, “Cool, Cooler, Coolest.”)
This plant of ancient cultivation is still a seed crop of global economic significance, and its place in the cuisine of many cultures is much greater than its role in medicine. Both the oil and the seeds are used to impart a nutty taste to foods; the oil also serves as a cooking medium. In 2010, the world harvest approached four million metric tons, with Myanmar, India, and China producing half of the world’s crop. For a medieval Arabic recipe for pasties cooked with sesame oil, adapted for modern kitchens from the al-Kitab al-Tabikh-al-Baghdadi, see Coquinaria, a website that offers historical recipes.
In 1871, John Ruskin gave the title “Sesame: Of Kings’ Treasuries” to a lecture he delivered on the nature and duties of men, quoting a philosophical dialogue by the ancient Greek satirist Lucian, in which a poor man is offered a bribe of sesame and money. Ruskin delivered a second talk on the education of women, entitled “Lilies: The Queens’ Gardens.” The two lectures were subsequently published together as Sesame and Lilies. The best-known literary reference to sesame is made in the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The phrase first occurs in an eighteenth-century French translation of The Thousand and One Nights. There is no evidence for the phrase in earlier Arabic sources, and many have speculated about its origins. (See Wikipedia for an overview, including Popeye’s use of “Open, sez me!” to open his spinach in the 1937 Paramount Pictures color cartoon feature Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves.)
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Dalby, Andrew. Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece. Routledge: London and New York, 1996.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.