The history of sesame - from oil to snack

Sesame has gone down in history as one of first oil plants known to humankind, grown for at least 3,000 years. In the past, it was used mainly for oil production, but over the centuries it has gained new culinary uses.

Today, it serves not only as an addition to meals and bakery products, but it is also considered valuable on its own, as an excellent part of our daily diet. It can be eaten on its own or as a convenient snack. How did sesame end up on our shelves in the form of sesame snaps or halva, and why do we need these barely visible, tiny seeds so much?

How did sesame make its way into our cuisine?

The most popular species of sesame, Sesamum indicum, is considered one of the oldest oilseed crops to have been “domesticated” and cultivated by humans. It is grown in the fields, reaching the height of around 1.5 m. Sesame flowers may have different colours, such as white, blue, or purple, and a single plant can yield approximately 80 seeds rich in unsaturated fatty acids.

Does sesame, as its name might suggest, come from India? Not really... the assumption is that sesame is native to Africa, especially its northern part. It is there that we can still encounter one of the best sesame farms, e.g. in Nigeria. Sesame also held a prominent place in the culture of ancient Egypt. It is also supposed to have been introduced to Asia at that time, where it settled down well not only in terms of crops and harvest but also culture and Indian cuisine. It can be presumed that, thanks to this “journey”, sesame is referred to as Sesamum indicum.It is worth noting that the seeds grown in Africa are slightly sweeter and of a very high quality – and this quality matches the best varieties grown in India.

Sesame was primarily used to extract oil (used, for instance, in oil lamps) but it also served other functions. According to various sources, the Chinese used to burn sesame oil to produce soot for ink blocks. In its pure form, sesame was also used in ancient times by the Greek army as a wholesome and energy-boosting portion of food for soldiers, whereas in Rome sesame seeds served as a basis for a hummus-like paste with caraway. Furthermore, early Assyrians believed that sesame wine was drunk by gods right before the creation of the world.

Why is it still worth eating sesame?

Sesame is not homogeneous and has several varieties. However, the most commonly consumed sesame seeds are white and hulled. However, regardless of its species, sesame is very healthy and rich in nutrients necessary for proper functioning of the body. It is a good source of dietary fibre and is gluten-free. Sesame seeds have a 50% fat content, with the majority being essential unsaturated fatty acids, especially Omega-3. The dietary fibre from sesame seeds lowers bad cholesterol in the blood, thus having a positive effect on the lipid profile. Even if for this reason alone, it is worth eating a handful of sesame seeds every day!

The sesame seeds themselves also have a high protein content, as much as 20 g per 100 gof sesame, which is comparable to or even higher than that in chicken eggs. They also provide a good source of calcium because the same amount of sesame seeds contains approximately 100-110 mg.

Sesame also contains a lot of other microelements necessary for the proper maintenance of body functions, including phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper and selenium. The presence of lecithin improves memory and concentration, while the antioxidants - sesamol and sesaminol - prevent cancer and slow down the ageing process. The same elements make these tiny seeds an excellent solution against infections, as they enhance the body’s immune system. It is not without reason that sesame is used in traditional Chinese medicine as a remedy for common cold and persistent cough (thanks to its antitussive effects). Moreover, it regulates blood pressure, prevents the formation of blood clots, and promotes the production of urine. It is also helpful in constipation and haemorrhoids, as well as strengthens the bones, teeth, hair and nails. It also contains a series of valuable vitamins, such as vitamin A, vitamin E and B vitamins. This is not a comprehensive list of the “magical” and health-promoting properties of sesame. The seeds also contain tryptophan, a compound necessary for the synthesis of serotonin and melatonin. A handful of sesame seeds a day should help overcome sleeping problems and depression – claims dietitian Celina Kinicka.

About sesame today

The versatile properties of sesame have helped it survive among humans over the years, making it famous and popular on each continent. However, its role is usually undermined and we see it as a spice or ingredient added to bakery products, while it is definitely worthwhile to consume it more often due to its beneficial properties. Now, we are given a perfect opportunity to do so – loaded with seseme seeds handy sesame snaps or sesame bars with puffed grains that additionally enrich the wholesome ingredients. Can they differ in the quality of the seeds used? Yes! This is the reason why Unitop attaches particular importance to seeds selection. The highest-quality seeds are selected for the production of sesame snaps. Additionally, the seeds are roasted prior to production, which has a favourable effect on the final taste and crunchiness of the snack, yet is not a standard amongst producers.

The size of seeds is also important for the production of sesame snaps. Therefore, Unitop chooses only the bigger, fuller seeds for the production process, which makes the snack exceptionally crispy.

And let us not forget about halva, which is also a snack based on sesame seeds - though ground into tahini. The selection of seeds for halva production is very similar, though with an additional and important element, i.e. the right colour of sesame and thickness of the mass made from the seeds. Even a few darker seeds may adversely affect the final colour of the product, and hence the importance of this parameter. We source Tahini from Turkey, where the production is known like no where else in the world! So if you fancy halva - choose only this hand made one, that retains the highest quality and taste.