Botanical name: Sesamum indicum L.
Sesame seeds come from the tropical, herbaceous, annual Sesamum indicum, a member of the Pedaliaceae family. The plant reaches up to six feet in height, and the leaves have tiny hairs on both sides. Its foxglove-like flowers are purple to whitish. The seeds, which are found in the fruit capsule of the plant, take 80 to 180 days to mature, at which time the pod pops open. The pods are then hung and dried until the ripe seeds-- tiny, flat, oval and beige or creamy white-- fall out.
Most of the four million pounds produced each year are converted to oil. Middle Eastern and Asian recipes often include sesame seeds for flavor and texture. Other culinary uses of sesame seeds include sesame cooking oil, tahini (a paste made from the seeds) the spread, hummus and the Turkish confection, halvah.
When it comes to longevity, it's hard to beat sesame: before creating the world, the gods drank sesame wine, at least according to Assyrian legend. One of the first plants used for its seeds, the ancient Egyptians made a flour from it; a tomb drawing of 4000 years ago shows a baker adding sesame seeds to dough. Ancient Greek soldiers also ate sesame seeds to boost their energy, while the Romans made a food similar to hummus, using sesame and cumin. Both sprinkled sesame seeds on breads and ground it into paste. The Brahmins considered sesame a symbol of good luck and immortality. In the tale of Ali Baba in The Thousand and One Nights, the magical command "Open sesame" (a reference to the pod's popping open when ripe) opens the door to the robber's den.
Widely enjoyed in Middle Eastern and Asian cooking, sesame seeds have a nutty, earthy aroma and taste-- which is enhanced by roasting. The seeds are often sprinkled over cakes and breads. In Syria and Lebanon, they're mixed with thyme and sumac to make a condiment called zatar. And in the Mediterranean, a tahini paste is made from the seeds. Sesame seeds are also an important ingredient in halvah (a Jewish sweet). In India the seeds are ground and used for flavor and thickening in spiced dishes. In China they're popular in stir-fries and oils. Try sesame seeds sprinkled on grains and steamed vegetables, and stir them into bread batters. Gomasio-- a delicious condiment to be sprinkled on dishes before serving-- is also made with roasted sesame seeds. To make your own, simply grind together roasted sesame seeds and natural sea salt (in whatever proportions suit your taste).
By the way... Sesame seeds are a good source of calcium and other nutrients. You can buy the seeds whole, unhulled, and hulled. Storage: These seeds have a high oil content, and although the oil is relatively stable while the seed is intact, refrigeration will slow the oxidation process and prolong the life of the seed.