Following the journey of sesame seeds, the oldest known oilseeds in history, from the Sunda Islands of Indonesia to India and rest of the world, and its use in Ayurveda
Originating along the rim of the Indian Ocean in the Sunda Islands of western Indonesia, the sesame plant, Sesamum indicum, are the oldest known oilseeds in history. With its oblong ridged pod containing these 1/8-inch-long husks, sesame seeds were widely traded from these eastern rims of the Bharatiya (ancient Indian) world from the native tropical Sunda to the east coast of Africa, and became part of the most ancient records of cultures in China, Egypt, Japan.
Egyptians grinded the seed and used it as grain flour. The Chinese burned the oil in the sesame seed and collected the soot for use in Chinese ink blocks. The Mesopotamian cultures in the Fertile Crescent of present-day Turkey extracted the oil efficiently from the seeds. The Assyrians created sesame wine offerings to the gods and assigned mystical powers to it, remembered by Ali Baba's command Open Sesame! in Arabian Nights. Romans in the French-Italian hills featured sesame baked into breads and pasta and also ground sesame seeds with cumin to make pastes to spread on bread. Soldiers at war were rationed sesame seeds to preserve their strength, as they are portable and easy to preserve.
The sesame plant's resilience in surviving in different climates of the tropical, subtropical, and southern temperate areas but especially dry, hot deserts, allowed it to surpass crops that perished without water. As trade across the Indian Ocean, known by ancient Greeks as the Erythraean Sea and to the land of Bharat as the Ratnakara, moved into the Mediterranean Sea, known as the Western sea in ancient times, sesame was a great crop for trading as it remained intact for months with its sweet-nutty, mild and mellow flavour and crunchiness when kept in dry, dark cool airtight conditions. Toasting brings out an almondy flavour.
There are several varieties of sesame, with white, cream, yellow, red, tan, brown or black seeds. Europeans preferred the white and cream-coloured seeds, with their white bell-shaped flowers tinted with blue, red or yellow, whereas the Chinese prized the black sesame seeds. Depending on the climate, the plants take 80-180 days to ripen 15-20 fruits with seeds fully and grow 1 to 2 meters tall, with hairy leaves and a characteristic unpleasant odour. Each fruit contains 70-100 seeds. Four billion pounds of seeds are harvested worldwide annually, of which India is the largest producer, mostly by small farmers during arid and hot summers.
Hanging the collected stems with their fruits upside down, the oblong pods dry until brittle, from which the husked seeds fall free. Once dehusked, the seeds can be used either whole or ground. Crushing the seeds and pressing them can yield 50-60% stable, fixed oil. Because the oil is stable at high heat, it is commonly used for stir frying and high heat cooking. Sesame oil is used raw in salads or as a cooking oil placed into shortening, margarine, and in the manufacture of items requiring a stable oil, such as soaps, lubricants, cosmetics and perfumes due to its hydrating and antioxidant benefits and in pharmaceuticals.
While a large body of research analysis has been done on this hearty seed and its derivative products, most agronomists, biochemists, engineers, soil scientists, and agricultural chemists have not acknowledged the clinical research done by the wisemen of ayurveda in ancient times.
The characteristic golden yellow sesame oil is clearly highlighted in detail, multiple times in the classic texts of ayurvedic medicine, both as a therapeutic food for certain conditions, and as a component in the intricate medicine-making processes for specific diseases. A majority of ayurvedic oils use sesame oil as a base or as a component due to its unique sroto-sodhana (channel-cleansing) properties. This unique cleansing property is excellent on external surfaces where the oil can penetrate and clean toxins for submerged fat and muscle tissue. However, this same penetrating property warns not to ingest it in excess as excess consumption can break tissue bonds and hamper crucial muscle and bone matrices.
The most common celebrated use of the sesame seed is during the seasonal festivals of December and January during which balls of sesame seeds (laddoos) are made with honey or jaggery, or fried seeds are bound to jaggery and dried in sheets, or seeds are baked into biscuits. These are offered abundantly to family and friends, during the kite-flying season, at Makar Sankranti when the sun heads toward the northern sky and during Sankat Chaturthi in celebration of the sweet-loving Ganesh and all children with mothers.
Defying the modern western fear of oil, sesame oil continues to be a favoured choice in breads ("sesame seed buns"), Asian stir frying recipes, hummus containing tahini (sesame seed paste), and sesame crackers.
(Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a Fulbright Specialist in Public Health, a family physician in the Dept of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, and holds doctorates in pharmacology and Ayurveda. She teaches ayurvedic nutrition on global platforms and keeps sesame oil next to her bed)