As a marinade, sprinkled on rice or used for frying Japanese fritters and making stir-fry food, sesame is used for many Japanese dishes and is very familiar to us. But where on Earth did it originally come from?
Sesame is from tropical areas
It is said that sesame comes from the savanna zone in Africa. According to research, the cultivation of sesame might have started before 3000 B.C. in the Nile River Valley in Egypt. Records also show that it was used not only for food, but also for lamps, incense and medicines in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Although it is 50% or more fat, sesame doesn’t oxidize easily, which means it keeps well in storage. It also is about 20% protein. This higher nutritional value compared to other coarse cereals and fruit and vegetables might have promoted its spread to different regions.
Sesame from Africa was spread across different regions of the world via two routes. Sesame has two types: tropical zone and temperate zone types. The tropical zone type was introduced to India due to the “ocean route” from Africa. Sesame has been excavated from the archaeological ruins at Moenjodaro, which flourished around 3000 B.C. in India, proving that a significant amount of sesame was cultivated at that time. It is said that it was then introduced to South East Asia and became widespread in Australia.
Meanwhile, the temperate zone type was passed on to Greek Civilization due to the “land route” through the ancient Oriental civilizations of Mesopotamia and Minoan. Then, it is said that east-west trades promoted due to Alexander the Great’s expedition to the East spread sesame to China, the Korean Peninsula and Japan via the Silk Road. Accordingly, sesame has come a long way - about 15,000km - to reach Japan from its home country of Africa.
Sesame became widespread in China with the introduction of Buddhism
In China, sesame has been excavated from the ruins of the Yellow River civilization, which flourished around 3000 B.C., showing that it was cultivated there from ancient times. But fully-fledged dissemination is said to have taken place around 50 B.C. when Buddhism was introduced. The demand for sesame dramatically increased because it was used for ritual lamp oil. It is said that at this time sesame also became popular in food culture, and sesame and sesame oil were used abundantly in cooking.
Chinese people called Western countries “胡 (hu)” and they used this word for the names of things brought from Western countries, like in “胡瓜 (cucumber),” “胡椒 (pepper),” and “胡桃(walnut).” Sesame was named “胡麻 (麻: hempseed)” i.e. hempseed brought from Western countries, because it looked like hempseed. It is currently called “芝麻 (zhima) instead of ”胡麻” in China. Japanese now call sesame “Goma,” which is the Japanese pronunciation of “胡麻.”
Sesame was introduced to Japan from China during the Jomon Period
In Japan, sesame was excavated from the ruins from the late Jomon period. The introduction of Buddhism around the mid-6th century seemed to impact greatly on the use of sesame for food in Japan. Since Buddhism prohibited the killing of animals, sesame, with its high nutritional value, might have been used instead of animal meat, forming the basis of Japanese vegetarian food and tea ceremony dishes. Sesame traveled a great distance 15,000km or more to reach Japan from Africa.