I'm used to having sesame seeds in my kitchen, along with the delicious oil derived from the toasted seeds. But I probably experienced sesame first in the form of tahini, when eating out in Middle Eastern restaurants as a child.
Sesame seed pods
White sesame seeds
Africa or Southern Asia.
Sesame is an ancient cultigen, today mostly grown in India, China and Korea, but with a probable origin in tropical Africa.
Seeds, which dried and optionally toasted. The leaves of the sesame plant have no culinary application and the terms "sesame leaves" or "wild sesame leaves" sometimes found in cookbooks are erroneous names for the spice perilla.
Pedaliaceae (sesame family).
The dried seeds taste nutty and this flavour is greatly increased by toasting. Oriental (dark) sesame oil has a strong, somewhat dominant nutty odour.
The name "sesame" and most names in present-day European languages derive from Greek sesamon, which was loaned from an unknown language of the Eastern Mediterranean. The source language probably belonged to the Semitic group as similar names are found in many Semitic languages, e.g. Akkadian šamaššammu, Aramaic šumšəma, Hebrew sumsum and modern Arabic simsim. That name is probably a reduplicated form of the root šms "fat" or "oil" (cf. Hebrew shemen "oil"). Species name indicum means "Indian".
In India, where sesame has been cultivated since the Harappan period, sesame has two independent names. Sanskrit tila is the source of all names in North India plus some South Indian names, e.g. Gujarati tal, Bengali til, Sinhala tala and Dhivehi tileyo. Some Dravidian languages in South India feature a different name exemplified by Tamil and Kannada ellu, a name reminiscent of Greek elaia "olive", hinting at a possible common origin for the names of two locally important oil crops. From the two Indian roots, words with the generalised meaning "oil" or "liquid fat" are derived, e.g. Sanskrit taila and Dhivehi theyo, Kannada enne and Tamil enney. Similar semantic shifts to a general word "fat" or "oil" are also known for other languages, e.g. English "olive".
English "gingelly" (now largely obsolete) and Portuguese gergelim (common only in Brazil) have their origin in the early colonial period with the Arabic juljulan "sesame". This is onomatopoeically derived from the noun jaljala "sound" or "echo" (referring to the rattling sound of ripe seeds within the capsule) and has some cognate names, e.g. Hindi gingli and Spanish ajonjolí. Alternative (now defunct) names of sesame in English are "tilseed" (from Hindi til) and "benseed" or "benne" (from Wolof bene).
Sesame is among the most important oil seeds known to mankind and one of the oldest. Many very different kinds of sesame oil available and knowledge of their individual properties is required in order to make a culinary choice. Sesame oil is traded in many different forms. Refined sesame oil is common in Europe and the US, most margarine being made from it. Cold-pressed sesame oil is available in Western health shops, but hot-pressed sesame oil is found in most Asian countries and is employed the preferred cooking medium in South-Western India and Burma.
The speciality oriental (dark) sesame oil, obtained by toasting the seeds before pressing, is named in Chinese xiang you "fragrant oil" and in Korean cham girum. In Sichuan xiang you is used drop by drop as a condiment, e.g. for hot and sour soup suanla tang and in parts of China it is commonly flavoured with crushed dried chillies. Dark sesame oil is not suitable as a frying medium unless diluted with bland oil. Japanese tempura is made by deep-frying battered vegetables in a mixture of one part sesame oil and ten parts vegetable oil.
Toasted sesame seed is a common spice in Eastern Asia, often sprinkled over Japanese and Korean dishes and used as part of shichimi tōgarashi, an exotic Japanese spice blend. Chinese sesame paste zhi ma jiang is made from toasted sesame seeds, has a strong flavour resembling Chinese sesame oil and is used for salad dressings and sauces for cold appetisers.
Dried but untoasted sesame seeds are popular in the Near East and occur in the Jordanian spice mixture zahtar and in the Egyptian dukka. All over Western Asia, tahini paste made from ground dried sesame seeds is popular and is used to thicken and flavour sauces and gravies. Hummus, a bread spread popular in Israel and in the Lebanon, is made from cooked chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, a hint of lemon juice and fresh parsley.
Sesame seeds are common in Mexican cookery and appear in one of the country's most famous culinary creations mole rojo or mole poblano, a sophisticated sauce usually served with baked turkey. Mole poblano has an unsurpassed flavour due to its large number of ingredients, including chicken stock, broiled tomatoes, raisins, paprika, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, almond, sesame seeds and unsweetened chocolate or 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 named tul-kae "wild sesame", but this name means perilla and not a variety of sesame.