Sesame was cultivated more than 4,000 years ago and was valued by many ancient civilizations. The Babylonians and Assyrians used sesame both in cooking and in religious ceremonies – in Assyrian mythology, the gods drank sesame wine the night before they created the world.

Ancient Egyptians used sesame oil as medicine and ground the seeds to make powder. Sesame seeds were found in the tomb of King Tutankhamu.

In Rome, soldiers carried these energy-rich seeds as emergency food, and cooks ground them into a paste to which they added cumin seeds for flavor.

In a famous Arabic folk tale, when Ali Baba shouted: “Sesame, open!”, the door to a cave opened to reveal a wealth of gold and treasure. This probably refers to the way ripe sesame seeds split open to reveal the seeds inside with just a light touch. Sesame seeds were brought to North America and Mexico during the slave trade and were grown in colonial America from 1730.

White sesame

Sesame can be sold whole or hulled, roasted or unroasted. Raw seeds have virtually no odor; Roasting produces a nutty flavor.

Black sesame

These whole black sesame seeds are popular in Chinese and Japanese cooking, and are sold roasted or unroasted.

When sesame seeds are roasted, the proteins and sugars in the outer layers react with each other to create new compounds, including pyrazines that smell like roasted nuts and 2-furylmethanethiol that smells like grilled meat.