Sesame seeds: A factual and cultural outlook

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My Childhood with Sesame

I love winters. Partially because back in India, summers are cruel in the northern cities and they last for 8 months. So usually in September, I used to start getting excited for winters during my childhood. This is because the weather starts changing in October and my mother would start making Til ke Laddu (Sesame seeds Laddu) and Til ki Chikki (Sesame seeds Brittle) in November.

(Left to right:Til ke Laddu, Til ki Chikki, and Halwa)

Sesame Laddu and Chikki are Indian sweets that are being made traditionally during winters in Indian households. They are so addictive that they leave behind a taste which forces you to have one more. The problem is they can only be eaten during winters due to their warm nature.This leaves you with a small window of 3-4 months to enjoy them.

I remember I used to call sesame seed ‘the topping agent’. It does not feel lame now when I know how extensively it is actually used all over the world as a topping. As sesame seeds are very nutritional, my mother’s aim was to feed us a certain amount everyday at any cost. She used to sprinkle it on curry, rice and Halwa. I also remember eating a spoonful of a mixture of sesame and flax seeds with milk everyday in winters.

This is the kind of relationship I had with Sesame all my childhood. Just thinking about it is flooding my mouth with saliva right now.

Sesame: The Survivor crop

(Sesame plant)

Surely, there is something unique about Sesame. For starters, we get seeds from the sesame flower. These seeds can be consumed directly or processed to extract oil (both inedible and edible). Did you know that sesame is  the oldest oilseed plant ever? Yes, it is believed to be 5500 years old and was first cultivated in the Indian subcontinent.

What makes it special is the fact that it possesses the ability to grow even in those areas where other crops cannot be grown. It can grow in drought conditions, high heat, high rainfall areas, and even in desert areas. That’s why it has been called the Survivor crop.

The colours of Sesame

(Colours of sesame: black, white, brown, pale yellow and amber)

There are 2 kinds of Sesame seeds that are commonly found. White seeds have a delicate flavour and can be used wherever required. The difference between white and brown seeds is that white are hulled and brown are unhulled. So naturally, brown seeds are more nutritional than white as some nutrients associated with sesame are present in the layer that is removed while processing white seeds. Black seeds have a much richer flavour and stronger aroma than both white and brown seeds. It is usually better to pair the seeds on the basis of how strong the dish tastes.

As a matter of fact, only 35% of the sesame seeds in the world are consumed directly. An estimated 65% of the seeds are used to extract oil. Even sesame oil can be looked upon as 2 different varieties. The unroasted seeds oil is pale yellow in colour. It has a grain-like fragrance, and is used for salat dressing and deep-frying. The second variety is obtained from the roasted seeds. It is amber-coloured and is used in cooking as a flavouring agent.

How does Sesame benefit our health?

These nutty flavored seeds are not only famous for their flavour, but also for a bunch of health benefits. Being a warehouse of fiber, plant protein, vitamins and minerals, sesame seeds strengthens our immune system.

Calcium is good for the bones, Vitamin-E and Magnesium helps in lowering blood pressure, Vitamin-B is good for metabolism, Iron and Copper aids blood cell formation, Pinoresinol controls blood sugar levels, and Selenium improves the health of thyroid.

Along with these, sesame seeds are a gift to older women as it helps hormonal balancing during menopause. Arthritic knee pain, a growing problem in older people, can be controlled by regular intake due to their anti-inflammatory properties. (Read in detail: Health and Nutritional benefits of Sesame seeds)

Edible sesame oil has somewhat similar benefits as sesame seeds. Inedible oil is one of the most important ingredients in the cosmetic industry. As it protects against UV-rays, it is prominently used to make cream and body lotions. Sesame oil is a great hair oil as the compounds inside make them healthy. It is also used as massage oil as it is quite effective in relieving body aches. It is believed that sesame seeds and oil have been used in folk medicines for thousands of years, now we know why. (Read in detail: Science-backed benefits of Sesame oil)

Sesame seeds and the local cultures in Asia

Korean Culture

(Sesame seeds are sprinkled on almost every Korean food)

Sesame seeds have successfully dug their roots deep enough into the Korean culture that they are used as a topping on all kinds of food before serving. The cooking process is incomplete without them.

Uniquely enough, they have reached one step further. For instance, sesame seeds are used as a metaphor in Korea. They use a phrase ‘frying sesame seeds’ that is written as ‘깨를 볶다’ in Korean. Actually, frying sesame seeds generate an intense nutty-flavoured aroma that is very beautiful. This phrase is used to compliment young married couples. When couples are really close and look lovely together, then Koreans usually say that they are frying sesame seeds, which implies that they are looking as beautiful and lovely as the aroma of frying sesame seeds.

Indian Culture

Til-tarpana means offering of sesame seeds. As per Hindu calendar, on Akshaya Tritiya (annual spring-time festival), it is believed that our ancestors (as embodied souls) come near the Earth to receive spiritual purity. It is believed that on this day, our distress level is more than usual. We owe a lot to our ancestors and God expects us to repay our debts.

To clear our debts and allow them spiritual purity, sesame seeds are offered to our ancestors so that they can move on in their afterlife. But why only sesame seeds? This is because sesame seeds were blessed by God Yama according to the Hindu mythology. It is also believed to have originated when drops of sweat trickled down God Vishnu and fell on the Earth.

Sesame seeds are also associated with Makar Sankranti, a harvest festival in India. In Maharashtra (northern state in South India), Tila Laddu (Sesame balls) are distributed on this day. Families meet and exchange these Laddu as a part of celebration. It indicates ‘Leaving the past behind and saying sweet words’. It indicates renewal of friendship.

In North India, sesame is considered auspicious. Makar Sankranti and Sesame are synonymous to each other and this seamless correlation is scientific and mythological too. On this occasion, people in northern India eat as well as give away sesame as an offering. By doing this, it is believed that you can remove all the negativity around and welcome prosperity and happiness.

Chinese Culture

(Fried sesame ball are prepared during Chinese New Year)

During the Chinese New year, Fried Sesame Ball is a sweet dish that is eaten in China. It is made by frying sweet bean paste covered with sesame seeds. Their round shape and golden colour when fried represents luck. When fried, the ball becomes larger in size that symbolizes growth.

Finally,

One thing that can be said about sesame is that it is a survivor. As we are aware now, sesame can be grown anywhere. It is able to adjust in desert or fertile areas, rainy or drought-prone areas, and so on. According to me, the most unique thing that I find about sesame is the fact that it requires much less care and attention in comparison to many other plants. And in return, it has so many amazing things to offer to us.

It is just amazing how it has almost all the nutrients that our body needs for a healthy lifestyle, ranging from fibre, protein, vitamin, and minerals to unsaturated fats. It is a storehouse of nutrients.

Stay healthy and keep consuming Sesame!

Check out our delicious South Korean recipes with Sesame.

Or simply check out our South Korea Themenbox

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