The humble sesame seed has apparently been known since very ancient times; it was the first recorded seasoning, dating to 3000 BC Assyria. Today it grows throughout Asia and Africa on a medium to tall annual herb which bears pink or white flowers resembling foxglove blooms. To harvest the seeds, the stems are cut and hung upside down over mats till the seeds fall out; they are small, flat, and oblate, and may be red, brown, black, or yellow-skinned. When hulled, the seeds are ivory coloured. Toasted, they become darker beige.

Sesame seeds have a high oil content, and thus when pressed yield a delicious oil. They can be ground to make tahini, essential to good falafel and hummus. They have little aroma and a mild flavour, but toasting them lightly in a dry frying pan releases a wonderful nutty smell and heightens their delicate flavour; in this form they are an important ingredient in the delicious Japanese condiment gomasio. Sesame seeds are at home in sweet or savoury environments, equally good in halvah and on bagels. Unhulled sesame seeds are a good source of calcium for those who don't consume dairy products.

Please note that, because of their oil, they turn rancid quickly, so store your sesame seeds in the fridge and use them up within a year.

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