• Posted by Califia Suntree on April 20th, 2010, 2:49 PM

    Q: What does a sesame seed grow into? I don’t know–we never give them a chance. What the &!$@ is a sesame?! –Comedian Mitch Hedberg (RIP)

    This Ask Spooning began not as a query from a curious reader, but a straight-up hysterical rant about sesame seeds by the dearly departed comedian Mitch Hedberg (**Rated R** for adult language and drug references: Sesame Seeds). Blank buns notwithstanding, it’s a good question: What IS a sesame? Obviously, like the poppy, sunflower, and pumpkin that give us tasty seeds, the sesame is some kind of flowering plant. But we’ve all seen poppies, sunflowers and pumpkins. Have you ever seen a sesame? Would you even know if you did?

    I went to an expert who can only be described as a sesame scholar, Dr. Dorothea Bedigian, Research Associate at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Her forthcoming book, Sesame, is a 384 page tome with a list price of $130, but Dr. Bedigian was willing to share some information about the humble little seed in the name of sesame awareness. “There is a great deal of misinformation about sesame, both in the published literature and naturally, on the internet.” Point taken. Ask Spooning aims to remedy that!

    First, an introduction: Sesame (Sesamum indicum) is a tall flowering plant first domesticated in India but now primarily cultivated in dry regions of Asia and Africa. Dr. Bedigian notes that there is only one commercial sesame grower in the U.S., Texas-based Sesaco. Unless you happen to live near a sesame ranch, it’s unlikely that you’ve actually seen a sesame in person. But if you are a Thomas Jefferson buff, you may have: “It is grown at Monticello, because they have attempted to reproduce the cultivations of Jefferson’s time, and he was a huge fan of sesame.” Washington had hemp…Jefferson had sesame.

    The name is not, in fact, a contraction of “says-a-me” (as I grew up believing). Rather, it’s derived from the ancient language of Mesopotamia, “where it was called sammassammu; thereafter it went into Armenian as shushma, into Greek as sesamon” and on into Latin and the Romance languages “virtually unchanged.” Indeed, the ancient name demonstrates just how long the sesame has been in use. “We have evidence of sesame seeds from the Indus civilization center of Harappa, dating back to the mid-third millennium BC.” It spread quickly to Mesopotamia, where it was adopted as an oil source for food and lamps.

    About 5000 years later, the seeds are as globally ubiquitous as the Golden Arches (thanks to that damn sesame seed bun), but Dr. Bedigian points out that the plant itself is also eaten in parts of Asia. “The Chinese can the leaves. Koreans use the leaves as a wrap, similar to the way grape leaves are used by Armenians and Arabs, for wrapping a mixture of rice, onions, tomato paste and spices.” A much more dignified use for this ancient plant than a Big Mac.

    Here’s my favorite sesame recipe, Armenian Tahini Bread via Saveur magazine.

    For further reading on the mighty sesame, Dr. Bodigian directs readers here and here.

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  1. April 25th, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    Finally! The mysterious sesame is opened!

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