sesame, herb (Sesamum indicum or orientale) cultivated for its seeds since ancient times, found chiefly in the tropics of Africa and Asia. Sesame seeds, also called bennes or gingellies, are black or white and yield an oil that resists turning rancid. The oil (known also as teel oil) is used extensively in India for cooking, soap manufacture, food, and medicine and as an adulterant for olive oil. The seeds are also popularly added to cookies and other baked goods and are made into candy (e.g., benne cakes). Sesame was introduced by African slaves to the U.S. South, where it sometimes becomes a weed. The sesame was once credited with mystic powers. Sesame is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Serophulariales, family Pedaliaceae.

Sesame (Sesamum indicum) is a flowering plant in the genus Sesamum. Numerous wild relatives occur in Africa and a smaller number in India. It is widely naturalized in tropical regions around the world and is cultivated for its edible seeds.

It is an annual plant growing to 50 to 100 cm (2-3 feet) tall, with opposite leaves 4 to 14 cm (5.5 in) long with an entire margin; they are broad lanceolate, to 5 cm (2 in) broad, at the base of the plant, narrowing to just 1 cm (half an inch) broad on the flowering stem. The flowers are white to purple, tubular, 3 to 5 cm (1 to 2 in) long, with a four-lobed mouth.


Despite the fact that the majority of the wild species of the genus Sesamum are native to sub-saharan Africa, Bedigian (1984, 1988, 1998, 2000, 2003) demonstrated that sesame was first domesticated in India. She cites morphological and cytogenetic affinities between domesticated sesame and the south Indian native S. mulayanum Nair., as well as archeological evidence that it was cultivated at Harappa in the Indus Valley between 2250 and 1750 BC, and a more recent find of charred sesame seeds in Miri Qalat and Shahi Tump in the Makran region of Pakistan.


The word sesame is from Latin sesamum, borrowed from Greek sēsámon "seed or fruit of the sesame plant", borrowed from Semitic (cf. Aramaic shūmshĕmā, Arabic simsim), from Late Babylonian *shawash-shammu, itself from Assyrian shamash-shammū, from shaman shammī "plant oil".

In India, where sesame has been cultivated since the Harappan period, there are two independent names for it: Sanskrit tila [तिल] (Hindi/Urdu til [तिल, تل]) is the source of all names in North India - ex. Gujrati and Bengali it is til (তিল). In contrast, most of the Dravidian languages in South India feature an independent name for sesame exemplified by Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada ellu [எள்ளு, എള്ള്, ಎಳ್ಳು] and Telugu "Nuvvulu"(నువ్వులు).

From all the 3 roots above, words with the generalized meaning “oil; liquid fat” are derived, e.g., Sanskrit taila [तैल]. Similar semantic shifts from the name of an oil crop to a general word “fat, oil” are also known for other languages, e.g., “olive” has given rise to English “oil”.

In some languages of the Middle East, sesame is named differently and evolved from Middle Persian kunjid. This has been imported into a few western languages - ex. Russian kunzhut [кунжут], Estonian kunžuut and Yiddish kunzhut [קונזשוט].

Portuguese (Brazil only) gergelim and Spanish ajonjolí (sesame seeds) and Hindi gingli [गिंगली] derive from an Arabic noun jaljala [جلجلة] “sound, echo”, referring to the rattling sound of ripe seeds within the capsule.

In southern US and the Caribbean, where the sesame seed was introduced by African slaves, it is known mostly by an African name, benne.

Mythological background

According to Assyrian legend, when the gods met to create the world, they drank wine made from sesame seeds.

In Hindu legends and beliefs, tales are told in which sesame seeds represent a symbol of immortality and the God Maha Vishnu's consort Maha Sri Devi herself representing the properties of the sesame seed, as such it is considered as the most auspicious oil next to Ghee used in Hindu rituals and prayers, the black sesame seeds are used in ancestral homage rituals called Darpanam (also called Tarpana in Kannada)and also the oil to pacify the malefic effect of Lord Shani (Saturn). In Tamil literature and medicine it has been mentioned as the "very good healthy" oil as such it is called Nala + Ney (Good Oil), old Tamil medicinal proverbs such as "ilaythavannakku yellum kohluthavanukkum kohlum"; meaning "precribe for underweight/unnourished it boost up and also may apply for the overweight/corpulent as well to reduce down, sometimes misinterpreted as "prescribe sesame to underweight and horse gram to overweight" thus the word kohlum is mistaken for Horse Gram. In Tamil medicine gurgle with sesame oil in the mouth after brushing teeth will reduce gum disease, mouth ulcer and eliminate plaque and colourless film. Taking a sesame full oil bath with a simple self massage are considered mandatory in Tamil tradition at least once in a week on Wednesday & Saturday for male and Fridays for female as per quoted by a Siddha Yogic Tamil medicine philosopher Auvaiyaar as quoted "Sani Neeraadu" means at least take a full shower once a week with oil which will reduce ones body heat on a rest day which is saturday for those who live in the hot humid tropical regions.

"Open sesame," the famous phrase from the Arabian Nights, reflects the distinguishing feature of the sesame seed pod, which bursts open when it reaches maturity..

It is also used in Urdu literature as proverbs "til dharnay ki jagah na hona"; meaning by, a place so crowded that there is no room for a single seed of sesame and "in tilon mein teil nahee" (ان تلوں میں تیل نہیں); referred for a person who is very mean, meaning by there is no oil left in this sesame.

In recent times the seeds have become an ingredient in wiccan practices. Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen suggests their use to aid conception, to draw money, or for protection.

Uses in food and cuisines

Sesame is grown primarily for its oil-rich seeds, which come in a variety of colors, from cream-white to charcoal-black. In general, the paler varieties of sesame seem to be more valued in the West and Middle East, while the black varieties are prized in the Far East. The small sesame seed is used whole in cooking for its rich nutty flavour (although such heating damages their healthful poly-unsaturated fats), and also yields sesame oil.

Sesame seeds are sometimes added to breads, including bagels and the tops of hamburger buns. Sesame seeds may be baked into crackers, often in the form of sticks. Sesame seeds are also sprinkled onto some sushi style foods. Whole seeds are found in many salads and baked snacks as well in Japan. Tan and black sesame seed varieties are roasted and used for making the flavoring gomashio. In Greece seeds are used in cakes, while in Togo, seeds are a main soup ingredient. The seeds are also eaten on bread in Sicily and France (called "ficelle sésame", sesame thread). About one-third of the sesame crop imported by the United States from Mexico is purchased by McDonald's for their sesame seed buns (The Nut Factory 1999). In Manipur (North Eastern State of India) Black sesame is used extensively as a favourite side dish called 'Thoiding' and in 'Singju' (A kind of salad). Sesame is used extensively for preparing these two dishes. Unlike mainland Indians they are prepared with ginger in thoiding with chilli and with vegetables in Singu which is spicy and hot. In Punjab province of Pakistan and Tamil Nadu state of India, a sweet ball called "Pinni" (پنی) in Urdu and 'Ell urundai' in Tamil, "Yellunde" (sesame ball, usually in jaggery)in Kannada, is made of its seeds mixed with sugar. Also in Tamil Nadu, sesame oil used extensively in their cuisine, 'Milakai Podi', a ground powder made of sesame and dry chili is used to enhance flavor and consumed along with other traditional foods such as idli. Sesame (benne) seed cookies and wafers, both sweet and savory, are still consumed today in places like Charleston, South Carolina - and the seeds are believed to have been brought into 17th century colonial America by West African slaves. In Cuban cuisine, sugar and white sesame seeds are combined into a bar resembling peanut brittle and sold in stores and street corners.

Ground and processed, the seeds can also be used in sweet confections. Sesame seeds can be made into a paste called tahini (used in various ways, including in hummus) and a Middle Eastern confection called halvah. In India, sections of the Middle East, and East Asia, popular treats are made from sesame mixed with honey or syrup and roasted (called pasteli in Greece). In Japanese cuisine goma-dofu (胡麻豆腐) is made from sesame paste and starch. East Asian cuisines, like Chinese cuisine use sesame seeds and oil in some dishes, such as dim sum, sesame seed balls (or 煎堆; Cantonese: jin deui), and the Vietnamese bánh rán. Sesame flavour (through oil and roasted or raw seeds) is also very popular in Korean cuisine, used to marinate meat and vegetables. Chefs in tempura restaurants blend sesame and cottonseed oil for deep-frying. Sesame oil was the preferred cooking oil in India until the advent of groundnut (peanut) oil. Although sesame leaves are edible as a potherb, recipes for Korean cuisine calling for "sesame leaves" are often a mistranslation, and really mean perilla.

Nutrition and health treatments

The seeds are rich in manganese, copper, and calcium (90 mg per tablespoon for unhulled seeds, 10 mg for hulled), and contain vitamin B1 (thiamine) and vitamin E (tocopherol). They contain lignans, including unique content of sesamin, which are phytoestrogens with antioxidant and anti-cancer properties. Among edible oils from six plants, sesame oil had the highest antioxidant content. Sesame seeds also contain phytosterols associated with reduced levels of blood cholesterol, but do not contain caffeine. The nutrients of sesame seeds are better absorbed if they are ground or pulverized before consumption.

Women of ancient Babylon would eat halva, a mixture of honey and sesame seeds to prolong youth and beauty, while Roman soldiers ate the mixture for strength and energy .

Sesame seeds produce an allergic reaction in a small percentage of the general population (5-13 per 100,000 ).

There have been erroneous claims that sesame seeds also contain THC which may be detectable on random screening. This error stems from a misunderstanding of the commercial drug Dronabinol, a synthetic form of THC. The normal delivery mechanism for synthetic Dronabinol is via infusion into sesame oil and encapsulation into soft gelatin capsules. As a result some people are under the mistaken assumption that sesame oil naturally contains THC. In fact, THC, CBD, CBN and the other cannibinoids are unique to the Cannabis genus.

Sesame oil is used for massage and health treatments of the body in the ancient Indian ayurvedic system with the types of massage called abhyanga and shirodhara. Ayurveda views sesame oil as the most viscous of the plant oils and believes it may pacify the health problems associated with Vata aggravation.


Sesame is grown in many parts of the world on over 5 million acres (20,000 km²). The largest producer of the crop in 2007 was India, followed by China, Myanmar, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Nigeria. Seventy percent of the world's sesame crop is grown in Asia, with Africa growing 26%.

Beginning in the 1950s, U.S. production of the crop has been largely centered in Texas, with acreage fluctuating between 10,000 to 20,000 acres (40 to 80 km²) in recent years. The country's crop does not make up a significant global source; indeed imports have now outstripped domestic production.


Sesame is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species, including the Turnip Moth.

See also


  • Bedigian, D. 1984. Sesamum indicum L. Crop origin, diversity, chemistry and ethnobotany. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
  • Bedigian, D. 1985. Is še-giš-i sesame or flax? Bulletin on Sumerian Agriculture 2: 159-178.
  • Bedigian, D. 1988. Sesamum indicum L. (Pedaliaceae): Ethnobotany in Sudan, crop diversity, lignans, origin, and related taxa. In P. Goldblatt and P.P. Lowry, eds. Modern Systematic Studies in African Botany 25: 315-321. AETFAT Monographs in Systematic Botany, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO.
  • Bedigian, D. 1998. Early history of sesame cultivation in the Near East and beyond. Pages 93-101 In A.B. Damania, J. Valkoun, G. Willcox and C.O. Qualset, eds. The Origins of Agriculture and Crop Domestication. The Harlan Symposium. ICARDA, Aleppo.
  • Bedigian, D. 2000. Sesame. Pages 411-421 In K.F. Kiple and C.K. Ornelas-Kiple, eds. The Cambridge World History of Food, Vol. I. Cambridge University Press, NY.
  • Bedigian, D. 2003. Evolution of sesame revisited: domestication, diversity and prospects. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 50: 779-787.
  • Bedigian, D. 2003. Sesame in Africa: origin and dispersals. Pages 17-36 In K. Neumann, A. Butler and S. Kahlheber, eds. Food, Fuel and Fields - Progress in African Archaeobotany. Africa Praehistorica. Heinrich-Barth-Institute, Cologne.
  • Bedigian, D. 2004. Conspectus of Sesamum. Annex III. Pages 61-63 In IPGRI. Descriptors for Sesame (Sesamum spp.). International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy.
  • Bedigian, D. 2004. History and lore of sesame in Southwest Asia. Economic Botany 58(3): 329-353.
  • Bedigian, D. 2006. Assessment of sesame and its wild relatives in Africa. Pages 481-491 In S.A. Ghazanfar and H.J. Beentje, eds. Taxonomy and Ecology of African Plants, their Conservation and Sustainable Use. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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