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Sesame Seeds



Sesame seeds are thought to be one of the oldest condiments, and so appealing that they became an integral part of the varied cuisines throughout the Middle East where they were native. One taste of the sweet, delectable Halvah, a sesame and honey confection that originated in Turkey, and you'll easily understand the allure that sesame seeds held to cultures of the ancient Middle East. The Turks were pressing sesame seeds and using sesame oil about 900 BCE.

Before sesame seeds were appreciated for their ability to add rich nutty flavor or to garnish foods, they were used only for oil or wine. The Assyrians claim to hold the earliest records for writing, having left their stone tablets as evidence. One of the tablets describes a legend about the Assyrian gods who drank sesame wine one night, then created the earth the following day.

Archeological excavations throughout the Middle East revealed the use of sesame oil dating back to 3000 BCE, well before the time of Christ. Persia and India were also cultivating this tiny treasure for its oil.

Sesame oil was the ideal base for making exotic perfumes, a practice that dates back to the Babylonians circa 2100 to 689 BCE. The Babylonians also used the oil for cooking, sesame cakes, and medicine. They, too, made wine from sesame and even perfected a brandy employing sesame seeds. Medicinally, sesame oil played an important role as an antidote to the bite of the spotted lizard.

The Chinese used the oil not only as a light source but also to create soot from which they made their superior stick ink over 5,000 years ago. Ancient Chinese calligraphic works of art using stick ink made from sesame oil may still be in existence in museums.

Palace records of Egypt's King Nebuchadnezzar, 6th century BCE, were carefully kept on clay tablets. One of the entries mentions a purchase of sesame oil. Records show that the Egyptians prescribed the sesame as medicine about 1500 BCE and used the oil as ceremonial purification. Historians such as 4th century Theophrastus, mention that sesame seeds were cultivated in Egypt. During that same period, Africa, too, cultivated the sesame seed in Ethiopia, the Sudan, and what was once Tanganyika.

We often hear the expression "nothing new under the sun," referring to what we tend to recognize as a new idea, only to discover that it's been done long before. Sprinkling sesame seeds on breads before baking them probably feels like a 20th century culinary innovation, but history reveals that it's not. The ancient tombs of important Egyptian nobles were decorated with colorful paintings. One tomb, dating back 4,000 years, contains a scene of a baker sprinkling sesame seeds into his dough. Dioscorides, a 1st century CE historian, tells us the Sicilian bakers were eagerly sprinkling sesame seeds on their breads centuries ago.

The Europeans encountered the sesame seeds when they were imported from India during the 1st century CE. Even the Venetian traveler, Marco Polo, was taken by the outstanding flavor of sesame oil that he tasted in Abyssinia, proclaiming it the best he had ever tasted.

Sesame . . . that engaging, mellifluous word evolved from the Arabic simsim, the Coptic semsem, and the Egyptian semsent. A German Egyptologist, named Ebers, discovered a papyrus scroll 65 feet long that contained a listing of ancient herbs and spices, among them was semsent. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, by Apicius, cookbook author of the Roman era, refers to semsent in his book. The Romans enjoyed ground sesame seeds that they mixed with cumin to make a tasty spread for their bread.

Benniseeds or benne seeds, as sesame seeds were called in the Bantu dialect, arrived in the United States with the West African slaves who brought only a few precious possessions with them. During the 17th and 18th centuries slave traders were running slave ships to the Southern States and the Caribbean. In Charleston, North Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana, benniseeds were considered good luck and incorporated into many dishes that are still used in Southern cooking.

During the 1930s, the major vegetable oil used by Americans was sesame oil. At that time the United States was importing 58,000,000 pounds of sesame seeds a year mostly for producing oil. Two events combined to shift the importing of these huge quantities of sesame seeds to a diminished 12 million pounds by the early 1950s: World War II and the development of inexpensive soybean and cottonseed oils.

A 1956 Pillsbury Bake-off contest winner changed the course of the downward spiraling sesame seed. The Washington, D.C. homemaker created an Open Sesame Pie and started a frenzy with commercial bakers sprinkling the tasty little seeds on all sorts of breads and crackers. It was the hamburger bun, however, that put sesame seeds back into the spotlight. Today, it's difficult to find hamburger buns without sesame seeds.

Traditional Uses:

"The butter of the Middle East," tahini, a smooth, creamy paste made of toasted, ground hulled sesame seeds, is a centuries-old traditional ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking. Hummos, a Middle Eastern appetizer that has become a universal favorite is made of ground chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, salt, and tahini. Baba ghanoush, another favorite appetizer known throughout the Middle East, has a base of roasted eggplant seasoned with tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and salt. These sesame-based dishes have been handed down from generation to generation for centuries.

In the ancient Arab world, preparations for a caravan trip meant preparing provisions that would not only sustain them through the hot, dry desert but would offer nourishment that pleasured them as well. Open sesame! They began with a pound of dry breadcrumbs, kneaded them into three-quarters of a pound each of pitted dates, almonds, and pistachios, and added a few spoonsful of sesame oil to moisten the mixture. Then they formed the mixture into balls and rolled them in a coating of sesame seeds. This handy old recipe makes ideal present-day backpacking food as well.

In addition to its popular use as oil for salads or cooking, sesame oil is used in producing margarine, soap making, pharmaceuticals, paints, and lubricants. In the cosmetic field, sesame oil is used as a base in developing perfumes.

After the sesame oil is pressed out of the seed, the resulting residue is referred to as a seed cake that is very high in protein. A portion of this nutritious seed cake is used as animal feed, while the remainder is ground into sesame flour and added to health foods.

Southern Indian cuisine depends on sesame oil for cooking, while in Japan it was the only cooking oil until quite recently. Today sesame oil is often combined with bland, less expensive oils.

The sesame seed plays a most important role in shojin-ryori, vegetarian cooking in the Japanese Buddhist monasteries. There the sesame seeds are almost always toasted before using as a sprinkle over rice dishes. Gomashio, a seasoning made of crushed sesame seeds and salt, is frequently served at the table in Japanese homes to be added as enhancement to the dishes served. If you are an aficionado of Japanese cuisine, you've probably encountered the delightful sesame flavor in traditional dipping sauces served in their restaurants
Used liberally in Chinese cooking, sesame oil is added to many dishes as a seasoning just before serving to benefit fully from its unique fragrance. Chinese confectioners have long favored the use of sesame seeds as a coating on their deep-fried sweets, still available in Oriental bakeries today. Korean cuisine combines sesame, garlic, and pimiento as a triad in many of their traditional dishes.

Health Benefits

Sesame oil rubbed on the skin may soothe a minor burn or sunburn as well as help in the healing process.
It's not unusual to encounter fantastic claims attributed to a single food. Sesame seed oil is said to remove wrinkles when applied to the skin in a facial massage. If this news gets out, there won't be a bottle left on the grocery shelves!

Eat some sesame seeds to relieve constipation and to remove worms from the intestinal tract. They're an aid to digestion, stimulate blood circulation, and benefit the nervous system. Sesame oil makes ideal massage oil because of its excellent emollient properties.
Applied topically, sesame oil is thought to aid in healing chronic diseases of the skin. With its vitamin E content, it's also a benefit to the heart and nervous system.


Sesame seeds are 25 percent protein and are especially rich in methionine and tryptophan, often lacking in adequate quantities in many plant proteins. One ounce of decorticated or hulled seeds contains 6 grams of protein, 3.7 grams of fiber, and 14 grams of total fat. When toasted they lose nutrients, scoring 4.8 grams of protein, gaining a little fiber at 4.8 grams, and packing 13.6 grams of total fat.

The fat in sesame seeds is 38% monounsaturated, and 44% polyunsaturated which equals 82% unsaturated fatty acids.

Natural sesame seeds (unhulled) contain 5 grams of protein per ounce, 3.1 grams fiber, and 14 grams of total fat. When toasted they offer 4.8 grams of protein, 4.0 grams fiber, and 13.8 grams of total fat.

Because sesame seeds are a plant food, there's no need to worry about cholesterol. There simply isn't any to be found within the seeds or the oil.

Both natural and hulled sesame seeds contain healthy amounts of the B vitamins riboflavin, thiamine, and niacin. With natural seeds scoring 8.7 mcg of folic acid for 1 tablespoon and plenty of vitamin B6, you can count on sesame seeds for excellent nourishment.

Let's look at some of the mineral values of the sesame seed. One tablespoon of hulled seeds contains .62 mg of iron, 27.73 mg of magnesium, 32.53 mg potassium, and .82 mg of zinc. Figures for the natural, unhulled, are slightly higher. Sesame seeds also contain healthy amounts of phosphorous. If you're lacking iron, turn to the sesame seed. Its iron content is equal to that of liver.
Like all seeds, natural unhulled sesame seeds are living foods capable of producing generation after generation through the process of sprouting. They are nutrient dense in order to trigger the germination process and provide nourishment to the tiny plants as they grow from sprout to maturity.



Seeds, Sesame seeds, whole, dried

Scientific Name: Sesamum indicum

Nutrient Units Value per
100 grams of
edible portion
Water g 4.69 65 0.180
Energy kcal 573 0
Energy kj 2397 0
Protein g 17.73 61 0.256
Total lipid (fat) g 49.67 58 0.501
Ash g 4.45 59 0.152
Carbohydrate, by difference g 23.45 0
Fiber, total dietary g 11.8 0
Calcium, Ca mg 975 21 102.528
Iron, Fe mg 14.55 16 1.587
Magnesium, Mg mg 351 3 23.961
Phosphorus, P mg 629 20 23.830
Potassium, K mg 468 4 34.612
Sodium, Na mg 11 3 6.384
Zinc, Zn mg 7.75 4 0.536
Copper, Cu mg 4.082 4 1.277
Manganese, Mn mg 2.460 3 0.723
Selenium, Se mcg 5.7 0
Vitamin C, total ascorbic acid mg 0.0 4 0.000
Thiamin mg 0.791 8 0.084
Riboflavin mg 0.247 10 0.034
Niacin mg 4.515 10 0.227
Pantothenic acid mg 0.050 1
Vitamin B-6 mg 0.790 1
Folate, total mcg 97 0
Folic acid mcg 0 0
Folate, food mcg 97 0
Folate, DFE mcg_DFE 97 0
Vitamin B-12 mcg 0.00 0
Vitamin A, IU IU 9 8 6.094
Retinol mcg 0 0
Vitamin A, RAE mcg_RAE 0 8 0.305
Vitamin E mg_ATE 2.270 0
Fatty acids, total saturated g 6.957 0
4:0 g 0.000 0
6:0 g 0.000 0
8:0 g 0.000 0
10:0 g 0.000 0
12:0 g 0.000 0
14:0 g 0.124 1
16:0 g 4.441 761
18:0 g 2.090 761
Fatty acids, total monounsaturated g 18.759 0
16:1 undifferentiated g 0.149 17
18:1 undifferentiated g 18.521 761
20:1 g 0.070 9
22:1 undifferentiated g 0.000 0
Fatty acids, total polyunsaturated g 21.773 0
18:2 undifferentiated g 21.375 761
18:3 undifferentiated g 0.376 25
18:4 g 0.000 0
20:4 undifferentiated g 0.000 0
20:5 n-3 g 0.000 0
22:5 n-3 g 0.000 0
22:6 n-3 g 0.000 0
Cholesterol mg 0 0
Phytosterols mg 714 0
Amino acids
Tryptophan g 0.388 13
Threonine g 0.736 19
Isoleucine g 0.763 19
Leucine g 1.358 19
Lysine g 0.569 19
Methionine g 0.586 19
Cystine g 0.358 10
Phenylalanine g 0.940 19
Tyrosine g 0.743 14
Valine g 0.990 19
Arginine g 2.630 18
Histidine g 0.522 18
Alanine g 0.927 13
Aspartic acid g 1.646 13
Glutamic acid g 3.955 13
Glycine g 1.215 13
Proline g 0.810 13
Serine g 0.967 13

USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 15 (August 2002