Sesame, Sesamum indicum, is a flowering annual plant with numerous wild cultivars in Africa, as well as some in India and Pakistan. It is now grown in tropical regions worldwide and cultivated for its highly nutritious seeds that grow in pods. The flowers of the sesame plant are usually yellow, though some cultivars are blue or purple. The seeds themselves can vary in color from creamy-white to black.
Sesame seeds are valued for their high oil content and have been used since prehistoric times. The term “Open Sesame,” from the Arabian Nights, originated because the sesame seed pod bursts open when the seeds are mature. Sesame plants were introduced to the U.S. via African slaves, who called the seeds “benne.” This term has remained in use in the South, including a Southern cookie called “benne wafers.”
Sesame seeds are popular in cuisines worldwide. They are sprinkled on top of breads and rolls, toasted and used in seasonings, ground and made into tahini and dressings, used in candies and cakes, used as an oil to flavor or cook foods, and much more.
The seeds contain manganese, copper, and calcium, as well as vitamin B1 (thiamine) and vitamin E. They also contain lignans and phytoestrogens with antioxidant and anti-cancer properties, as well as phytosterols, which can help to reduce blood cholesterol. They are more nutritious when ground than when eaten whole.
Sesame oil is used in massage and skincare and is also used in Ayurvedic medicine.