Herbs and Spices

Sesame — Seed of Immortality

Originally published in Healthy Options, July 2004, New Zealand

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Perhaps the oldest seed utilized by man, sesame has been used for thousands of years as medicine, food and to light lamps. Although the first written record of sesame is 3,000 BC, Assyrian mythology gives sesame a role in the origins of our world. In this legend, the gods drank sesame wine the night before the earth was created. This tiny seed, which explodes from its pod when mature, is also called the seed of immortality and is considered to be good luck. It was the first plant used for its oil. In China the oil was originally burnt and used as ink. Some people think it wasn’t used as food until much later.

The sesame seed, Sesamum indicum, from the Pedaliaceae family, is well known throughout many cultures and has been valued as food and medicine alike. As sesame is a rare seed that contains high quantities of methionine and tryptophan as well as other amino acids. It is a perfect match for grains and legumes to create necessary essential amino acid balance in vegetarian diets. It is interesting to see how this little seed is eaten in deliciously complementary combinations across many cultures:

  • In the Middle East, it is often used in a mixture of spices, herbs and nuts called za’atar or dukkah and eaten with bread and olive oil, or it is made into tahini and eaten with falafels and hummus.
  • In Japan, the black sesame seed is ground and mixed with salt and used as a nutritious seasoning for rice or noodles called gomashio.
  • In Myanmar (Burma), it is added to salads or served at the end of the meal in a unique pickled tea salad.
  • The Chinese usually toast the seeds before grinding them into a paste, which is added to stir fried vegetables. Alternatively they press the flavorful oil from the toasted seeds and drizzle it over noodles or vegetables before serving.
  • In India, among other countries it is made into halvah and eaten as a desert, they also use cold pressed untoasted sesame oil for cooking.