Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sesame (Sesamum orientale)

A number of friends would know that, for many years, I'd had an intense pining for a linga or sesame plant. This was the only plant I lacked to complete the backyard diversity song for gardening, the "Bahay Kubo" (that version sounds like prepubescent zombies singing).

Sesame has a special place in my heart, not only because it is delicious and the source of hummus' tahini, but because it marked my interest in ethnobotany, plant history, etc. Like many of my most favored plants, everyone uses it, but nobody really knows how the plant looks.

Let me start by saying that sesame flowers resemble beautiful people's noses. At least, that's what ancient Indian texts referring to dieties say. Some moving verses like:
His beautiful eyes are just like reddish lotus flowers. They are most beautiful, just like lakes of Krishna Prema. His nose is arched and is resplendent just like the sesame flower. (Referring to Sri Chaitanya)

Whose nose, that is beautiful as a sesame flower, is adorned with a round pearl. (Referring to Radha, the female pictured above)
Hindu references to gods with noses like sesame flowers (tilottama) spread out further into South India. Investigation into these phenomena reveals that in South India, the Vijayanagara Empire began to exhibit preferences of sharp noses, with metaphors abounding refering to ellu poo or the sesame flower. (In contrast, the preceding empire favored round, wide noses, with their flower of favorable nasal comparison being that of the kumizhi, bloom of the Gmelina asiatica). Honestly, the flowers look similar to me!

Sesame flower.

Gmelina asiatica flower.

And the practical, perceivable relationship that sesame has with beauty are many in a few cultures. Ayurveda recommends daily oil massages for health and beauty, and so on, and so forth.

But anyway, the plant.

The plant is amazing. Mine started out as little black seeds which I procured in an adventure to Ilocos. I almost lost them, breaking the clay pot that held them, but thankfully, I was able to take some home.

They were smaller than the typical sesame seeds, and still covered with the black layer that signals viability to plant. Jimmy mentioned he planted a whole field of them so his mom could make the molasses-sesame delicacies she sells in the market (and those were amazing as well).

They progressed to unassuming little seedlings, as I suppose everything does:

And one that I coddled in particular boletd to a potentially overpowering plant with pointed, coarse leaves. It's come to resemble a hydra, aggressive stems reaching out of the netting I wrapped around one plant box to dissuade the chickens from having a salsa party inside.

I read somewhere that the leaves could be a potherb (food), but I find them to be a tad bitter. Of course, that hasn't stopped any major culture for utilizing leaves as nourishment. The flower, that thing compared to so many divine noses, smells like tahini. This is strange, as I wondered if my acquaintance with sesame paste makes me unable to say that the flower is fragrant.

Now thse fall off and give way to pods, green and supple. Mine aren't nearly ready yet to be harvsted, as sesame has sort of a long yield period. I don't mind at all. The pods will dry out and the sesame will start rattling inside. This attribute, which makes sesame perhaps viable as a musical instrument for small mammals, has led to a string of names meaning "echo". These begin with Arabic jaljala and move on to Spanish ajonjoli, Hindi gingli (another term aside from the more common til), and Portuguese gergelim.

In the meantime, I sacrificed a few pods to examine the freakish assemblage of sesame seeds waiting to coat themselves in black.

So how did this thing end up in my garden? Apparently, it was domesticated in the Indian region several centuries BC. I guess they reached the Philippines pre-Spanish period. The predominant Malaysian and Indonesian words are bijan and wijen, respectively. I imagine one syllable bearing resemblance to another from the Hindu gingli-- though I admit it is a laughable stretch.

Old attempts to dictionarize the Malay language show the Javanese word (and current Filipino word) as linga. Thailand calls it ngaa, and Laos, man nga. I have read it written as hei chih-mah and hu ma in Chinese. I'm positing that via.

So yes, it's getting late, and like my "harvest", this is an open-ended story. I will update further on the progress and how I end up using the plant. Til then, think of the plant whenever you eat hummus or things from your local Chinese restaurant.


chiqui said...

very interesting. so that's how sesame plant looks like. i like sesame oil. i like to use it on my ginisang vegetables. parang galing sa chisnese restaurant yong luto ko. my son loves the black sesame soymilk that we buy from korean markets.

PaLa said...

informative article.. thanks

Bea said...

Chiqui, thanks! It's very easy to grow kaya lang the rain is not good for it. At least I know when/how to start for the summer.

PaLa, thanks!