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Sesame – A Near Perfect Food

posted on: May 5, 2021

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

‘Open Sesame’, the magical Arabian Nights phrase which supposedly opens doors to untold riches, is well-known in the literature of the West.  Nevertheless, there are not many who relate this saying from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves to sesame seeds – one of the oldest foods known to man.  Yet, there is a plausible connection between this phrase and the seeds.  According to E.A. Weiss in Castor, Sesame and Safflower, the saying ‘Open Sesame’ could be related to the method of opening the sesame capsule which if opened at the right time only takes a slight tap to expose the seeds.

The seeds of the sesame plant are highly valued as a food and condiment in the Middle and Far East and, because of their many health attributes are considered a near perfect food.  In these ancient lands, they are labeled ‘the epitome of the oilseed crops’ due to the nourishing and excellent oil they produce.  Delicate and tasty, both the seeds and their oil are employed as a spic when the dishes, to be prepared, call for exotic seasoning.  This is in addition to their main use as a wholesome food.  Containing many of the food values needed by the human body, they make a perfect protein dish when combined with legumes.

Sesame seeds, also known as sesamum indicum, ajonjoli, benne and simsim, are believed to be the oldest oilseeds cultivated by man.  The Assyrians even believed that they were known in heaven before they existed on earth.

Historians indicate that the sesame plant originated in Africa and, at the dawn of civilization, spread through the Middle Est to India and China.  It was grown as a food crop by the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs who all employed its seeds for food, medicine and, for the making of liquor.  In Babylon, the oil from its seeds was the only oil used for cooking and, as it was with all the other Mesopotamian civilizations, it was prized as an offering for the gods.  In the Biblical era, the ancient Egyptians and Persians made bread from its flour and the Romans consumed its oil as a butter.

During the 8th century, the Arabs introduced the sees into European cooking and gave us their name, sesame which is derived from the Arabic simsim.  After the discovery of the New World, the Portuguese and Spaniards brought the plant to Central and South America, and the African slaves carried it with them to the U.S.A. under the name benne.

Today, it is cultivated in most parts of the globe.  However, the world production of sesame seeds is relatively small, about 4.6 million metric ton (in 2017).  For 2019, Sudan and Myanamar were the top producers of the seed.  In the U.S., the commercial cultivation of sesame seeds is only carried on a small scale in the southwestern part of the country – not enough to supply the American domestic market.  Most of the seeds consumed are imported from Africa and Latin America.

The harvesting of sesame is somewhat difficult to mechanize since the ripe seeds scatter at the slightest touch.  Hence, they are more expensive to produce than alternative oilseeds.  on the other hand, this sub-tropical plant is easily grown and thrives in most types of soil.

An aromatic, annual hairy herb, it grows about wo feet high with dark green oblong leaves three to five inches long.  Its flowers range in color from white to pink and its fruit pods, about one inch long and a third inch wide, contain numerous very tiny, sweet and oleaginous seeds.  These pods are harvested when almost mature, then spread to fully ripen.  When the seeds are dry, the felty pods split open with such violence that the seeds are ejected.  They are then hulled and winnowed ready to be used in cooking.

The seeds are ovate, slightly flattened and vary in color from white to grayish black.  For food purposes, the lighter coloured ones are universally preferred.  All varieties are relatively delicate and damage results in the immediate loss of viability.  However, if stored in airtight containers, they stay fresh and keep for a long period of time.

The majority of sesame seeds produced in the world are almost all used for culinary purposes and consumed in the country where they are grown.  they may be eaten raw, roasted or ground into oil and, in all these forms utilized as an ingredient or condiment in a wide variety of foods.  From main courses, mainly stews, to salads and desserts, they impart an exotic touch and a succulent taste.

A very nutritious food, sesame seeds contain about 50% fat, 20% protein, 16% carbohydrates, 5% fibre, and calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus and vitamins C and E.  They are relatively sodium free and have no cholesterol.

In the past ages, they were eaten to restore vitality and sex appeal.  The utilization f this healthy food for these purposes was not based on the fantasy of the superstitious.  Modern science has established that sesame seeds, in fact, are helpful as an anti-aging food.  They aid in the improvement of the skin capillaries and muscle tone.  Also, it has been found they have a laxative effect.  Hence, their utilization as a bowl movement stimulant in the eastern lands since time immemorial was based on solid foundation.

In a number of countries, besides the seeds, other parts of the sesame plant have, for centuries, been used as a cosmetic and herbal medicine.  In India, a syrup is made from the leaves and employed in the treatment of dysentery, diarrhea, rheumatism and to soften the skin of dancing girls.  In Sri Lanka, the leaves are utilized to ease bowel infections, as poultices for ulcers and sores, and as a beautifying agent.  In addition, the leaves and roots are prepared into a cosmetic and employed for darkening the hair.

Yet, its cosmetic and medical uses are only the fringe benefits of the sesame plant.  The seeds are used chiefly as a food.  In North America, they are utilized, in the main, as toppings to flavor bread, biscuits or rolls, candy, and as an ingredient in other delicacies.  One of the most well-known sweets with sesame as the principle ingredient is halva which I made from ground sesame seeds and sugar, cooked to form solid slabs.  Another is a sweetmeat made from a mixture of sesame seeds, honey and dried fruits.  Both are ancient Middle Eastern sweets which are now to be found in all parts of North America.

In most dishes, the seeds are toasted before being added to the other ingredients.  This tends to give them a nut-like aroma and taste, somewhat like almonds.  The process takes only a few minutes if the seeds are placed in a preheated cast-iron frying pan and stirred until they slightly darken.

The most important constituent of the sees is their oil.   When they are crushed, a clear thin yellowish and inodorous oil is produced.  One of the best cooking oils in the world, it is rich in minerals and vitamins and keeps for years without becoming rancid.  The meal, remaining after the oil is extracted, is used in animal feed and in part of the third world it is made into food for the poor.

In the Far East, sesame oil is much sought after for its color, flavor and stability, and is a very important element in all types of cookery.  In the western world, it is utilized in the pharmaceutical industry where it is highly desirable as a vehicle in medicines, and employed in the manufacturing of cosmetics, margarine and shortening.

In the Middle East, the seeds are crushed into a thick nutty flavoured paste called tahini.  Somewhat like peanut butter in looks and taste, it is a versatile rich paste – a choice food in all countries which edge the shores of he eastern Mediterranean.

It can be eaten as a spread on bread or as an ingredient in a good number of dishes.  A sauce is made by mixing the tahini with lemon juice, garlic, salt and, at times, other seasonings.  This sauce can be served by itself as an appetizer; combined with avocados, chickpeas, eggplant or potatoes to make vegetarian delights; served with fish or meat; and utilized as a dressing for salads.

Tahini, in the large cites of North America, can be fund in all Middle Eastern food outlets and many specialty health stores.  However, if there are no markets which offer this paste for sale, it can be easily made by grinding the raw seeds.

A health food par excellence, tahini is fast spreading in the U.S.A. and Canada as a food for vegetarians and meat eaters alike.  Tasty and nourishing, as these dishes will testify, it is a near perfect eatable with a bright future.

Basic Tahini Sauce

4 tablespoons tahini

5 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons water

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon thyme

pinch of cayenne

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and process into a creamy sauce.

Note:  Add more water for a thinner consistence.

French Fries with Tahini

Serves 6 to 8

Oil for frying

3 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into French fries

1 basic tahini sauce recipe

In a frying pan, place oil to about 1/2 -inch thickness and heat, then fry the ptoatoes until they turn golden brown.

Drain on paper towels, then place on a flat serving plate.

Spon the tahini sauce evenly over the top, then serve immediately.

Note:  The French fires and sauce may be served separately with each person adding the sauce to 


Hummus bi Tahini

Serves 4 to 6

Rapidly spreading throughout the western world, hummus bi tahini goes well with all types of meats and vegetables.  it can be served as an appetizer, salad, and side or main dish.

1 can chickpeas (19 oz 540 ml.), drained

1 basic tahini sauce recipe

1/2 small tomato, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 tablespoon olive oil

In  a food processor, place the chickpeas and tahini sauce, the process into a paste.

Place on a flat serving plate, then decorate with the tomato and coriander leaves, then sprinkle with the oil and serve.

Zucchini and Tahini Salad

Serves 6 to 8

2 zucchini from 8 to 10-inches long, peeled

1 basic tahini sauce recipe

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds or 1 small tomato cut into 1/4-inch cubes

Broil the zucchini in a 350oF preheated oven for 1 hour or until the zucchini is well cooked, then remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Place in a food processor with the tahini sauce and process into a paste, then spread on a flat serving plate.

Decorate with the coriander leaves and pomegranate seeds or tomato and serve.

Tahini Vegetable Salad

Serves 6 to 8

2 large tomatoes, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

1 small head of lettuce, chopped into medium size pieces

1 cucumber, almost 8 -inches long, peeled and cut into 1/3 -inch cubes

1 can tun (6 1/2 oz.  184 g.)

1 basic tahini sauce recipe

In salad bowl, place the vegetable sand tuna, then thoroughly mix.

Add the tahini sauce and toss just before serving.

Tahini and Yogurt Soup

Serves 4 to 6

4 cups yogurt

1 basic tahini sauce recipe

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 cup water

In a serving bowl, place all ingredients and thorough mix, then chill and serve.

Avocado Dip

2 large avocados, peeled and the seeds removed

4 tablespoons tahini

4 tablespoons lemon juice

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/4 teaspoon slat

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1 small tomato, cut into 1/4 -inch cubes

Place all the ingredients except the tomato in a food processor, then process into a paste.

Place on a flat serving platter, the decorate with the tomatoes and serve.

Almond and Tahini Dip

1/2 cup blanched almonds

1/2 cup tahini

5 tablespoons lemon juice

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/4 cup water

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

In a blender, pulverize the almonds, then add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, water and salt and blend into a paste.

Place on a flat serving platter and decorate with the coriander leaves, then sprinkle with the oil and serve.

Tahini Potato Salad

Serves 4 to 6

5 tablespoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons tahini

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 small hot pepper, very finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

5 medium potatoes, boiled until cooked, then peeled and cut into 3/4 -inch cubes

In a small bowl, thoroughly mix all the ingredients except the potatoes to make a sauce, then set aside.

Place the potatoes in a salad bowl, then pour the sauce over the top and gently toss just before serving.

Rice with Sesame Seeds

Serves 4

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons sesame seeds

1 cup rice, rinsed

2 cups water

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

In a frying pan, melt the butter and stir-fry the sesame seeds over medium het until they turn light brown, then add the rice and stir-fry for a further 3 minutes.

Stir n the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, then cover and cook over medium het for 20 minutes.

Turn off the heat and allow the rice to cook in its own steam for a further 20 minutes, then stir with a fork and place pyramid style on a flat serving plate.

Sesame Seed Sticks

Makes about 2 dozen

1 cup sesame seeds, toasted

1/3 cup flour

2 eggs

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

pinch of cayenne

oil for frying

In a blender, place the sesame seeds and pulverize, then transfer to a mixing bowl and add the remaining ingredients except the oil.

Mix into a dough, then roll into finger size sticks.

In a saucepan, place cooking oil to 1/2 -inch thickness and heat, then fry the sticks over medium heat until they turn golden brown.

Drain on paper towels, then serve hot or cold as snacks.

Chicken in Tahini

Serves 4 to 6

6 tablespoons cooking oil

2 pounds chicken breast, cut into serving pieces

2 medium size onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 small hot pepper, finely chopped

2 cups water

6 tablespoons tahini

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon parsley, chopped 

In a frying pan, heat 4 tablespoons of the oil, the fry the chicken pieces over medium heat until they turn golden brown, turning them over once or twice.

Remove the chicken pieces and set aside, then add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and saute the onions, garlic, coriander leaves and hot pepper over medium heat until the onions begin to brown, about 15 minutes.

Stir in the water, tahini, salt and pepper and bring to a boil, then add the chicken and cover.

Cook over medium-low heat for 30 minutes, then place the chicken pieces with their sauce on a serving plate and decorate with the parsley just before serving.

Almond and Tahini Cookies

Makes about 3 1/2 dozen cookies

1/2 cup tahini

1/2 cup blanched almonds, pulverized

1 cup sugar

4 tablespoons butter

2 eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups flour

Place all the ingredients except the flour in a food processor and process for a few moments, then transfer to a mixing bowl.

Add the flour and knead into a dough, then form into balls about 1-inch in diameter.

Flatten to about 1/4 -inch thickness on well greased cookie sheets, then bake in a 350oF preheated oven for 15 minutes. 

Cool before serving or storing.