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Sesame (Sesamum indicum L.)


pharmaceuticalSemen Sesami
Arabicجلجلان, سمسم
جُلْجُلَان, سِمْسِم, سُمْسُم
Juljulan, Zelzlane, Sumsum, Simsim
Aramaicܟܫܘܡ, ܫܘܡܫܡ, ܫܘܫܡ
Kashuma, Shumshum, Sesham
ArmenianՇուշմա, Շուշմայի Կուտ
Shushma, Shooshma; Shushmayi kut, Shooshmayi good (seeds)
AzeriKüncüt, Hint küncütü
Күнҹүт, Һинт күнҹүтү
BelarusianСезам, Кунжут
Sezam, Kunžut
芝麻 [jì màh], 胡麻 [wùh màh]
Ji mah, Wuh ma
芝麻 [zhī má], 胡麻 [hú má]
Zhi ma, Zi ma, Zi Moa, Hu ma
Copticⲟⲕⲉ, ⲥⲉⲙⲥⲏⲙ, ⲥⲓⲙⲥⲓⲙ, ⲥⲓⲙ, ⲥⲩⲥⲁⲙⲉⲛ
Oke, Semsem, Simsim, Sim, Susamen
CzechSezam, Sezamové semínko
Dhivehiތިލެޔޮ, ތިލެޔޮކޯޅި
Thileyo, Thileyokoli
EnglishSemsem, Gingelly
EstonianHarilik seesam, Kunžuut
FrenchSésame, Teel, Till
Georgianქუნჯუთი, შირბახტი
Kunjuti, Shirbakht’i, Shirbakhti, Shirbaxti
GermanSesam, Vanglo
GreekΣουσάμι, Σησάμι
Sesami, Sousami
Greek (Old)Σήσαμον
Sumsum, Shumshum
Hindiगिंगली, काली तिल, सफेद तिल, तिल
Til, Kali til (black), Sphed til (white); Gingli
HungarianSzézámfű, Szézámmag
ゴマ, シマ
Goma, Shima
Kannadaಎಳ್ಳು, ಅಚ್ಚೆಳ್ಳು, ತಿಲ
Acchellu, Ellu, Tila
KhasiNeiong, Nei
Korean참깨, 깨씨, 씨샘,
Chamggae, Cham-kkae, Ggaessi, Ssisaem, Ggae, Kkae
Laoມັນງາ, ເມັດງາ, ງາ
Met nga, Nga, Nga
LatvianSēzama sēklas
LithuanianSezamas, Indinis sezamas
Malayalamഎള്ള്‌, തിലം
Chitelu, Ellu, Thilam
Manipuri (Meitei-Lon)তোইদিং
Til, Ashadital, Bariktil
Naga (Angami)Setse
Naga (Tangkhul)Hāngsi
हामो, तिल
Hamo, Til
PolishSezam indyjski
PortugueseSésamo, Gergelim (Brazil)
RussianКунжут, Сезам
Kunzhut, Sezam
SantaliTilmin, Til
SerbianСусам, Сузам, Сезам
Susam, Suzam, Sezam
SlovakSezam indický, Sezam
SpanishAjonjolí, Sésamo
Ellu, Yellu
Teluguనువ్వులు, తిలలు
Nuvvulu, Tillu
Ngaa, Dee la (?)
Tibetanཏེ་ལུ་, ཏིལ་དཀར་, ཁྱུ་མ་
Telu, Til kara, Khyuma
Urduتل, کنجد
Til, Konjed
VietnameseCây vừng, Mè, Vừng, Hắc chi ma
Cay vung, Me, Vung, Hac chi ma
Yiddishסומסום, סעזאַם, קונזשוט
Sumsum, Sezam, Kunzhit
Sesamum indicum: Flowering sesame plant
Flowering sesame plant
Sesamum indicum: Black and White sesame seeds
Black and White sesame seeds
Sesamum indicum: Sesame pods
Unripe sesame capsules
Used plant part

Seeds, which are either simply dried or dried and toasted. Sesame seeds can be off–white, brown, grey or black.

To my knowledge, the leaves of the sesame plant are not used in the kitchen. Nevertheless, sesame leaves or wild sesame leaves are sometimes called for in Korean cookbooks. This is due to erroneous translation and should read perilla.

Plant family


Sensory quality

The dried seeds taste nutty; their flavour is dramatically increased by toasting. Oriental (dark) sesame oil has a strong, somewhat dominant nutty odour.

Main con­stituents

The seeds contain about 50 to 60% of a fixed oil, which is charac­terized by a two lignanes, sesamin and sesamolin (approximately 300 ppm in the oil), whence during refinement two phenolic antioxidants, sesamol (3,4‑methylene­dioxy­phenol) and sesaminol, are formed.

Sesame oil is mostly composed of tri­glycerides of the singly un­saturated oleic acid (40%) and the doubly un­saturated linoleic acid (45%), besides approxi­mately 10% saturated fats (iodine index 110). Because of its powerful antioxidant and because triply unsaturated fatty acids are missing, sesame oil has an excellent shelf life.

Oriental sesame oil owes its characteristic flavour to a huge number of compounds which form only during the toasting procedure. Most prominent are 2‑furyl­methanthiol, which also plays an important part in the flavour of coffee and roasted meat, guajacol (2‑methoxy­phenol), phenyl­ethanthiol and furaneol (4‑hydroxy-2,5‑dimethyl-3(2H)‑furanone); furthermore, vinyl­guacol, 2,4‑deca­dienal, 2‑pentyl­pyridine and other O- or N-containing hetero­cycles are reported (2‑acetyl pyrroline, 2‑pentyl pyridine, alkylated and acylated pyrazines). The hetero­cyclic compound 2‑acetyl pyrroline is thought to be the impact aroma compound of South-East Asian pandanus leaves.

Yet other sources claim that pyrazines are the key aroma compounds of toasted sesame seeds. It was found out that pyrazines dominate the flavour for mild toasting conditions (160 °C), while toasting at higher temperature (200 °C) leads to increased formation of furanes.

Sesamum indicum: Sesame flowers
Sesame plant with flowers


Sesame is an ancient cultigen. Today, it is mostly grown in India and the Far East (China, Korea), but its origin is probably tropic Africa (although some other sources seem to favour an Indian origin).


The name sesame and most of its pendants in present-day European languages goes back to Greek sesamon [σήσαμον] (Mycenaean Greek sasaman [𐀭𐀭𐀔, also logographically 𐀭]) which is itself a non-Indo–European loan. Perhaps, it derives via Phoenician ššmn from Akkadian šamaššammu which can be interpreted as a compound of šamnu [𒉌] fat, oil and šammum [𒌑] plant; this closely parallels the Sumerian name for sesame, geši [𒄑𒉌], which is composed of two sign geš plant and i₃ oil.

The first element of šamaššammu derives from a Semitic root ŠMN fat which is common across the Semitic tongues, e. g., Arabic as-samn [السمن] fat, clarified butter, Hebrew shemen [שמן] oil Ugaritic shamn [𐎌𐎎𐎐] oil. Other Semitic forms for sesame are rather close, e. g., Aramaic šumšəm [ܫܘܡܫܡ] or šušma [ܫܘܫܡܐ], Hebrew sumsum [שומשום] and modern Arabic as-simsim [السمسم]; the distantly related Coptic language has, among similar forms, semsem [ⲥⲉⲙⲥⲏⲙ].

In some lan­guages of the Middle East, sesame is named dif­ferent­ly: Pashto kunjite [كونجتې], Kazakh künjit [күнжіт], Geor­gian kunjuti [ქუნჯუთი], Turk­men künji and Azer­baijani küncüt evolved via Modern Farsi konjed [کنجد] from Middle Persian kunjid. The word was borrowed by Russian as kunzhut [кунжут] and entered a few more Western languages, like Estonian kunžuut and Yiddish kunzhut [קונזשוט].

In India, where sesame is cultivated since the Harappan period, there are two independent names for it: Sanskrit tila [तिल] appears alredy in the Rigveda and is the source of all names in North India, and some Southern Indian names also, e. g., Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Bengali til [तिल, تل, ਤਿਲ, তিল], Gujarati tal [તલ], Sinhala tala [තල] and Dhivehi thileyo [ތިލެޔޮ], but also Telugu tillu [తిలలు]. The origin of that word family is not known, but it often suspected to derive from a pre-Aryan Northern Indian language predating Sanskrit, perhaps related to the contemporary Munda languages. Yet there is a similar Akkadian term tallum meaning oil.

Sesamum indicum: White Sesame flower
Sesame flower
Sesamum indicum: Purple sesame flower
Sesame flower

In contrast, most of the Dravid­ian languages in South India feature an inde­pendent name for sesame exempli­fied by Tamil and Kannada ellu [எள்ளு, ಎಳ್ಳು]. Quite inter­estingly, the latter name reminds of Greek elaia [ἐλαία] olive and Akkadian ellu fruit, olive, hinting at a possible common origin for the names of two locally important oil crops; but there is also Sumerian ili sesame. While this group of names seems to be ex­clusively associated with Dravidian languages in the South of the sub­continent, a remote connection to the til-words cannot be ruled out completely.

Sesamum indicum: Sesame plants with purple flowers
Sesame plants with flowers

From both In­dian roots, words with the gener­alized meaning oil; liquid fat are derived, e. g., Sanskrit taila [तैल], Gujarati tel [તેલ] and Dhivehi theyo [ތެޔޮ] vs. Tamil enney [என்னெய்], the latter being formed from ellu [எள்ளு] sesame and ney [நெய்] fat; see coconut for the second element. Cf. also Malayalam enna [എണ്ണ] and Kannada enne [ಎಣ್ಣೆ] oil, probably a parallel construction. Similar semantic shifts from the name of an oil crop to a general word fat, oil are also known for other languages, e. g., olive has given rise to English oil.

English gingelly (now largely obsolete) and Portuguese gergelim (common in Brazil only) have their origin in the early colonial period; their origin is Arabic al-juljulan [الجلجلان] sesame, which allegedly derives from an Arabic noun jaljala [جلجلة] sound, echo, referring to the rattling sound of ripe seeds within the capsule; obviously, the Arabic term has an onomatopoetic character. There are a few cognate names, e. g., Maltese ġulġlien, Hindi gingli [गिंगली] and Spanish ajonjolí. Other, now uncommon, names of sesame in English are tilseed (from Hindi/Urdu til [तिल, تل]) and benseed or benne (from Wolof bene).

A possible Chinese term for sesame is hu ma [胡麻] wild/foreign hemp. In this compound, the element ma means hemp (it can also refer to the numbing taste of Sichuan pepper), and hu signifies barbarian, foreign (the same sign is used to write black pepper as foreign Sichuan pepper).

Selected Links

Ilkas und Ullis Kochecke: Sesam ( via A Pinch of Tahini ( A Pinch of Sesame Seeds ( The Epicentre: Sesame Recipe: Hummus [حمص] ( Transport Information Service: Sesame oil Recipe: Hummus [حمص] ( Recipe: Hummus [حمص] ( Recipe: Hummus [حمص] ( Recipe: Ma po doufu [麻婆豆腐] ( Rezept: Ma po doufu [麻婆豆腐] ( Rezept: Scharf–saure Suppe (Suan-la tang [酸辣湯]) ( Recipe: Hot and Sour Soup (Suan la tang [酸辣湯]) ( Recipe: Hot and Sour Soup (Suanla tang [酸辣湯]) ( Recipe: Guai wei ji si [怪味鸡丝] (strange-flavour Chicken aka Bang-Bang chicken [棒棒雞絲]) ( Rezept: Kaji Ichim (Gajee tchim) [가지찜] (Koreanische gefüllte Auberginen) ( Recipe: Mole Poblano (The Mole Page, Recipe: Mole Poblano (The Mole Page, Recipe: Mole Poblano de Guajolote (

Sesamum indicum: Sesame flowers
Sesame flowers

Sesamum indicum: Purple-white sesame flower
Sesame flower
Sesame is among the most im­portant oil seeds of man­kind, and one of its oldest. There are very dif­ferent kinds of sesame oil available, and some know­ledge about their culinary proper­ties is required to make a com­petent choice.

Basically, nearly all seeds contain some kind of stored energy used as a fuel by the young plant in the first phase of its life (those few plants which do not store energy in their seeds have highly specialized alter­native strategies, e. g., endo­trophic mycor­rhiza in the orchid famly). Energy is some­times stored in the form of proteins, e. g. in the bean family (beans, peas, lentils); yet much more common in the use of carbon hydrates (e. g., cereals) or fat to store energy. Oil obtained by pressing such seeds contains besides true fats (lipids) several more constituents: Aroma compounds, which make up for the culinary character of the oil, vitamins, trace elements and more. With respect to lipids, in the plant kingdom nearly pure glycerides, one can further distinguish between saturated and unsaturated fats.

Among the un­satu­rated fats there are several essen­tial; fail­ure to in­cor­porate enough of them leads to disease. Yet satu­rated fats are better for cooking, because they can be heated to higher tempera­tures and have longer shelf life. Also, some aroma com­pounds de­compose at higher tempera­ture, imposing a burnt flavour to the dish.

Cold‑pressed oils (in more recent litera­ture also called native oils) contain a wealth of aroma compounds and their aroma resembles the plant they were obtained from. They must be heated carefully to preserve their aroma compounds; otherwise, the advantage of cold pressure is lost. Cold-pressed oils are perfect for salads and well-suited for dishes prepared at temperatures not much higher than the boiling point of water. A famous example is extra vergine olive oil; some other examples are walnut oil, poppy oil and rapeseed oil.

The term cold-pressed is somewhat confusing, because even cold-pressed oils are not obtained at refrigerator or even room temperature; due to friction in the seeds the temperature may rise well up to 40 °C. Some oil mills improve the quality of their products by artificial cooling during the extraction procedure. Cooling increases the quality of the oil; it is particularly important for obtaining highest-quality olive oil.

Some vegetable oils are obtained from seeds that have been toasted before pressing; typically, these products are very flavourful (Austrian pumpkin seed oil, Nepalese mustard oil, hemp oil, Oriental sesame oil). Since the seeds have been exposed to elevated temperatures before pressing, there is no need to keep the temperature low in the following steps: typically, extraction takes place at 60 to 80 °C (even higher temperatures would further increase the yield, but lead to development of off-flavours, see below).

Sesamum indicum: Sesame fruits
Ripe sesame capsules (S. radiatum)
Sesamum radiatum: Flowering sesame plant
Flowering sesame plant (S. radiatum)

Hot-pressed oils are much cheaper, since pressing yield increases with the tempera­ture; even the waste from a first pressing may be re­processed to give more oil at high tempera­ture (above 100 °C). Solvent extraction, finally, gives nearly quanti­tative yield. Yet in the heat, a large number of un­pleasant smelling or even toxic com­pounds may form and make most hot-pressed oils unsuited for human con­sumption. Thus, a further step called refine­ment is needed to remove free fatty acids, solvent residues and all aroma com­pounds, leaving a bland oil con­sisting purely of lipids.

Refined oils are common in the West, on one hand because strong flavours are not popular anyway and on the other hand because they are stable up to high tempera­tures and are thus perfectly suited for deep frying. For the taste, it’s not of much importance which plant they are obtained from, but their thermal stability and content of multiply unsaturated fatty acids depends on the plant species. The most popular refined oils in Europe are sunflower, corn, sesame and safflower oil and the solid coconut fat.

Margarine is made by hydrogenation of vegetable oils, whereby unsaturated fats are converted into saturated fats. Because of loss of the valuable polyunsaturated fatty acids, it is less valuable but, on the other hand, it is a cholesterol-free plant product and thus still bears some dietetic advantages compared to butter. Culinarily, of course, butter is far superior, even if butter-flavoured margarines are sold.

Sesame oil is traded in any of the forms described above: Refined sesame oil is very common in Europe and the USA; most margarine is made therefrom. Cold-pressed sesame oil is available in Western health shops. In most Asian countries, different kinds of hot-pressed sesame oil are preferred.

For example, a hot-pressed sesame oil is the preferred cooking medium in South­west India (mainly, the union state Maha­rashtra) and Burma (see also onion for Burmese curries). A specialty particular worth noting is oriental (dark) sesame oil, which is obtained by toasting the seeds before pressing. Dark sesame oil (Chinese xiang you [香油] fragrant oil, Korean cham girum [참기름]) is a common flavouring in Korea and in the Chinese province Sichuan (see also Sichuan pepper), where it is used drop by drop as a condiment, e. g., for Sichuan hot and sour soup (suanla tang [酸辣湯]); in parts of China, it is commonly flavoured with crushed dried chiles.

Dark sesame oil is not suitable as a frying medium, unless it is diluted with bland oil; for example, Japanese tempura [テンプラ] is made by deep-frying battered vegetables in a mixture of one part sesame oil and ten parts vegetable oil (see perilla).

Sesamum indicum: Sesame flowers
Sesame flowers
Sesamum indicum: Sesame flower
Sesame flower (front view)
Sesamum indicum: Sesame plant in flower
Sesame plant in flower

Toasted sesame seeds are a common spice in Eastern Asia; it is often sprinkled over Japanese and Korean dishes. It forms part of shichimi togarashi, an exotic spice blend of Japan (see Sichuan pepper). A simpler mixture from toasted sesame seeds with about 10% salt is known as gomashio [ごま塩, ごましお] in Japan; it is usually sprikled over dry rice dishes.

Chinese sesame paste (zhi ma jiang [芝麻酱]) is made from toasted sesame seeds and has a very strong flavour resembling Chinese sesame oil; it is used mainly for salad dressings and sauces for cold appetizers like Sichuanese guai wei ji si [怪味雞絲, 怪味鸡丝] strange-flavoured chicken threads, which is a salad made from precooked chicken meat cut in fine slivers with a dressing of soy sauce, sugar, black vinegar (hei cu [黑醋]), sesame paste, sesame seeds, chile oil and toasted Sichuan pepper. The unusual (hence strange) combination of flavours make this dish as unique as delicious. In China, it is also known as bang-bang chicken [棒棒雞絲], named after wooden bludgeons which steet vendors used to force their knives through the bones and to loosen the meat fibers.

Dried but un­toasted sesame seeds are popular in the Near East and occur in the Jordanian spice mixture zahtar (see sumac) and in the Egyptian dukka [دقه] (see thyme). All over Western Asia, tahini [طحينية], a paste made from ground dried sesame seeds, is widely used to thicken and flavour sauces and gravies. Hummus [حمص], a bread spread popular in Israel, Syria and Lebanon, is made from cooked chick­peas, tahini, olive oil, a hint of lemon juice and fresh parsley.

Sesame seeds are quite common in Mexican cookery and appear in one of the country’s most famous creations: mole rojo or mole poblano, a sophisticated sauce that is usually served to baked turkey. See also paprika about mole in general and Mexican pepper-leaf about green mole, mole verde.

What makes mole Poblano so special is the large number of ingredients that lead to an unsurpassed rich flavour: chicken stock, broiled tomatoes and tomatillos, raisins, three different kinds of paprika (the holy trinity of ancho, mulato and pasilla), a handful of tropical spices (cloves, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper), sesame seeds and almonds are combined with a most unusual ingredient, unsweetened chocolate or, even better, toasted cocoa beans. After a long simmering period, the sauce is refried in lard which makes its flavour even more deep and unforgettable.

Some Korean cookbooks refer to a flavouring called wild sesame (tul-kae [들깨]). This name, however, does not refer to any sesame variety, but means perilla, a different plant with fragrant leaves.

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