An annual oil-producing plant native to Indonesia and East Africa, from where it later spread throughout Asia and North Africa. Cultivated in Mesopotamia more than 3,500 years ago, sesame is believed to have been one of the first condiments as well as one of the first plants to be used for its edible oil. Archaeological remains show that sesame was grown in Palestine and in Syria some 3,000 years before the Christian era. An Egyptian tomb dating back 4,000 years depicts a baker adding sesame seeds to his dough.
The edible seeds of this plant are highly valued for their oil, which represents more than half of their total weight and which is extremely resistant to rancidity. In addition to its use as a food, sesame is used in the fabrication of cosmetics and as livestock feed (the residue from the extraction of the oil). At the end of the 17th century, sesame was introduced into the southern United States by African slaves. It is cultivated on a modest scale in America today, where it is used mainly as a condiment. The largest producers of sesame are India, China, and Mexico.
Sesame is a thick, bushy plant averaging about 2 feet in height; it bears pretty white or pink flowers from which the pods develop. Each pod contains numerous flat seeds that are creamy white, yellow, reddish, or blackish in colour, depending on the variety. The tiny oval seeds are covered with a thin edible hull and have a nutty flavour. The famous magic formula "Open sesame!" from Arabian tales is thought to have been inspired by the fact that the pods of the sesame plant burst open while the enclosed seeds reach maturity.
Sesame seeds are harvested by hand; the plant is principally cultivated in countries where labour is cheap and readily available.