Sesame seeds, or til (pronounced teel) are on of the worlds oldest condiments. Their Latin name is Sesamum indicum which implies that they came from India. There has been much debate about this, some saying they originated in the East Indies, others that they came from Africa, but new evidence suggests that they do indeed come from the Indian subcontinent.
There is an Assyrian myth which relates how the gods drank sesame wine the night before they created Earth (this may explain some anomalies).Sesame seeds were at first not used to cook with, but their oil was used for lighting, and the Chinese used the soot from this oil to make ink for their ink blocks.
We know that the Egyptians used them because they are mentioned in the Ebers papyrus, which listed all herbs and spices known to them in a scroll which was 65 feet long. On the wall of one of the pharaohs’ tombs a picture of a baker mixing sesame seeds with bread was discovered. Even today, we have sesame seeds on bread.
Roman soldiers carried them to give an energy boost when required, and Romans ground them and spread them on their bread in a paste mixed with cumin seeds. They also made biscuits called Itrion with them. Pliny wrote down a recipe for Pear Butter which included sesame seeds. The ancient Greeks mixed them with honey and believed this was an aphrodisiac, and this mixture is still eaten in the Middle East today.
In the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, “Open sesame” was the magic phrase to open the cave that was filled with treasure. It is believed that the phrase is a reference to the way the seed pods explode and eject their seeds. Because they do this, sesame seeds have to be picked by hand before the pods ripen and eject their seeds, and this is what makes sesame seeds expensive- you get about a thousand seeds to one ounce.
These seeds can be black, red, white, yellow and cream. They grow on plants which range from between 18 inches to 5 feet high. The flowers look like foxgloves and range may be white or a pale lavender colour.
Sesame seeds have been used in traditional medicine on the subcontinent for various ailments. They are given to patients with diabetes; to treat constipation (Dioscorides wrote that sesame seeds were good for ‘griefs of the colon’);the oil is used for hair loss and to prevent baldness; it is also used on the skin to keep it young and supple, and to treat boils and other skin diseases. The seeds have cooling properties, so are used to reduce body heat. Sesame oil has powerful antioxidant and antiviral properties. Sometimes children have the oil put around their nostrils to prevent colds.
In Pakistan there are street sellers who go around houses selling the oil to women who use it as a hair conditioner. The oil can also be used to gargle with if you have a sore throat.
The sesame seed is, traditionally, a symbol of immortality, and Hindus put the tila mark on their foreheads.
Medical research has shown that sesame seeds have phytosterols, which lower cholesterol levels; boost the immune system and lower the risk of some cancers. They also have a high copper content and so are thought to be good for arthritis sufferers and the liver’s health.
They are used to make halva in Greece, Turkey the Middle East and the subcontinent, and they are the principal ingredient of tahini paste, from which hummus is made. Of course they are also used in breads, and one good Middle Eastern sweet is sweet fresh dates stuffed with almonds, then rolled in sesame seeds. Also you con make gromasio with them: this is 1 part dry fried sea salt to 12 parts dry fried sesame seeds, ground together, to make a seasoning to add to soups, stews and sauces.
Below is a Pakistani recipe for halva (halwah) which does not include tapioca as is more usual.
HALVA WITH DATES AND SESAME SEEDS
500 gr fresh dates stoned
125 gr sugar
375 gr channa dahl
2 tsps rosewater
50 gr pistachio nuts, crushed
50 gr almonds crushed
50 gr sesame seeds
4 green cardamom pods, husks discarded, only use seeds
250 gr oil
First boil the channa dahl, and when it is cooked blend to a paste with the dates.
Heat oil in a pan, then add paste and fry until it changes colour. Add the sugar and fry till it has dissolved (about 5 mins). Mix in the cardamom seeds and the rose water, stir well place in a serving bowl and garnish with the almonds, pistachio nuts and sesame seeds.
If you want, you can cut it into pieces while it is still hot and then you can eat it whenever you want if you keep it in the fridge after it has completely cooled.
This has Taste and is a Treat.