Food: Open sesame

The til can enhance the nutritional value and flavour of many dishes

By D J Narain
Published: Wednesday 31 March 2004

Food: Open sesame

-- (Credit: Ruhani Kaur / CSE)Sesame seeds, known as til in North India, come from Sesamum indicum -- a plant belonging to pedaliaceae (the unicorn plant family). Sesame seeds are thought to be one of the oldest condiments known to humans, and S indicum is most likely the first crop grown for edible oil. Its first written record dates back to 3000 bc. As per Assyrian mythology, sesame's origin goes back even further: the gods imbibed sesame seed wine the night before they created the Earth. What's more, sesame played an important role in the famous tale Ali Baba and forty thieves: the phrase "open sesame" was the password to open the thieves' cave. This reference is perhaps attributable to the fact that ripe sesame seeds burst from their pods with a sharp pop.

The plant is said to have originated in India; today it is popular in many parts of the world, including the us. Visit any fast food joint in the country and you'll notice sesame seeds on most sandwich buns. In 2003, the us imported more than 46,266 tonnes of sesame seeds, majority of which were used for the buns.

Even in India, sesame seeds are an essential ingredient of many deserts. Til sweet dishes are a must during the Makar sakranti festivities. Til is even used in the preparation of some vegetables and pulses. The nuttiness of the seeds also makes it an indispensable component of ice-creams, cookies, cakes, muffins and chocolates. The oil of the seeds enhances the taste of salads; it is also used for cooking in South India. As per Charak -- the medical book of ancient India -- sesame oil is the best oil. At present, it is used as a substitute for olive oil in pharmaceutical preparations for external use.

Sesame seeds are used as an alternative source of calcium by people with milk allergies. They are also highly beneficial in the treatment of piles. A bandage of the sesame seeds can be applied over ulcers and burns. Application of a mixture of equal parts of sesame oil and limewater is also effective in these conditions. Black sesame seeds, rich in iron, are extremely valuable for anaemic people. In ancient times sesame seeds were used to induce abortion, as one tablespoon of the grounded seeds given with equal quantity of palm jaggery excites the uterine contractions and thus expels the fertilised ovum. Even other parts of S indicum are useful -- cologne can be made from sesame flowers; oilcakes left after extracting the oil are rich in proteins, and can be used as cattle feed.

D J Narain is editor, business coordinator of publications division, Union ministry of information and broadcasting

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