Visit almost any fast food burger joint and you’ll likely notice sesame seed on your sandwich bun.  What may surprise you; however, is just how many of those tiny seeds we consume each year.  Last year alone, the United States imported more than 102 million pounds of sesame seed, the majority of which went right to those buns.  Although breads, rolls and bagels are among the most familiar foods associated with sesame, its uses extend far beyond the realm of baking.

Sesame seed is a versatile seed that can be used in many of the same ways as nuts.  The seed has a nutty, sweet aroma with a milk-like, buttery taste.  When toasted, its flavor intensifies, yielding an almost almond- or peanut butter-like flavor.  Rich in calcium, vitamins B and E, iron, and zinc, sesame is high in protein and contains no cholesterol.  It is a key ingredient in a variety of world cuisines, especially Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. 

Sesame is thought to be one of the oldest spices known to man and is likely the first crop grown for its edible oil.  Babylonians used the oil to make sesame cakes, wine, brandy, and toiletries.  From as early as 1500 B.C, Egyptians believed sesame to have medicinal powers.  What’s more, the famous phrase "Open Sesame" was the magical password that opened the entrance to the cave in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.  This reference is perhaps attributable to the fact that ripe sesame seeds burst from their pods with a sharp pop.  In Africa, sesame seed was called benne and considered good luck.  Today, in the southern United States, sesame seed is still widely known as benne.

In Mediterranean cooking, sesame seed is often used in sweet dishes and desserts.  Its nuttiness makes it a natural accompaniment to ice cream, sugar cookies, cookie bars, cakes, muffins, breads, and especially chocolate.  Chocolate lovers take note:  once you try the sesame-chocolate combination, you’ll wonder why you never thought of it before!  Sesame seed is also a delicious addition to salads, noodle dishes, chicken, pork, and vegetables.

The sesame plant, Sesamum indicum, is cultivated in Central America, India, Sudan, China, and the United States.  It is an annual that grows three to six feet high.  Its stems have white, lilac or pink flowers and bear capsule-like fruit, which contains the seeds.  The fruit is harvested by hand, and the capsules shatter when fully ripe, releasing the seeds.  Hulled seeds are pearly white, tear-shaped and flat.  Because of their oil content, sesame seeds have a shelf life of about two years if stored tightly capped in a cool, dry place or in the refrigerator.
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