Sesame seeds are used to make a vegetable oil that is probably the first ever made by man, even before olive oil. Sesame seeds and oil feature among the most popular condiments in eastern cuisines, from Egypt to China and Japan. The plant is native to Africa and India. Today, however, it is cultivated throughout tropical and subtropical Asia and the Mediterranean basin. Outside the kitchen, sesame oil is also used as a main ingredient in cosmetic products such as shampoo and soap, and as a moisturising agent.
Sesame is a herbaceous, annual oilseed crop that can grow to a height of one metre. It has long and lanceolate leaves and white tubular flowers. Its fruits are dehiscent: this complex botanical term simply means that, at maturity, their skin splits spontaneously releasing up to a hundred seeds. The seeds are so small, there are at least 500 to one gram. The most widespread varieties of this plant are three, characterised by white, yellow and black seeds respectively. While yellow and white sesame seeds are similar and more commonly used for culinary purposes, black sesame is more often used in the preparation of pharmaceutical products.
"Open sesame" is a phrase we all have heard during our childhood. What most people probably ignore, however, is that it actually refers to the sesame fruit, which opens spontaneously to release its small, aromatic seeds. The first evidence of the use of sesame in food preparation dates back to 3000 B.C., making it one of the most ancient known condiments as well as one of the first plants cultivated by man. Archeological findings show that it was used by the Egyptians, the Sumer and the Babylonians. In ancient times, it was often used as a fuel in oil lamps by the Chinese and Indians.