Khul Ja SimSim !
When i was four, it happened. I got obsessed with a story. Every night, without fail, i'd hop on my grandmum's lap and demand - much like the story crazy king of Arabian Nights, "Amma ... tell me, THAT story!" Amma would oblige her darling little king and go into the most emotive retelling of Ali baba and forty thieves.
My heart would leap as i'd hear Ali baba utter the magic phrase,"Khul Ja Simsim!" In the mirror of my imagination i'd actually SEE the cave door whooooooshing open. For the Little Wonderstruck Me, the Simsim was now open, and i was free to wander into the mystery ...
It was only much, much later one makar sankranti when i was munching on a yummy til laddo that Amma told me what Simsim actually was. No, it wasn't the cave door. It was that tiny magic seed TIL aka SESAMUM INDICUM. The gift of ancient Indians to not just Arabia, but our entire world.
The delicious Tahini, the middle eastern Sesame halva, Changzhou Sesame Cake from China, the Japanese Gomashio. Puerto Rican sesame-seed candy, Binangkal from Philippines, Beniseed Soup from Nigeria. And many culinary delights within India. From Tilkut, Revari, Gajak, Laddos, Chutneys, Pulaos ...
And thus begins a journey into the mysteries this ancient Simsim seed unravels:"Khul ja simsim! Open O Sesame!"
As per archeological evidence found in Harappa (3050 BCE- 3500BCE) sesame as a crop originated in Ancient India from where it travelled seed by seed, dish by dish, literally all across the earth. We find
sesame mentioned in the holy Vedas, of course.
We also find it mentioned in an anonymous merchant's diary on travel and trade in the Indian Ocean around mid 1st CE :
" ... (ships from Barygaza Bharuch, present day Gujarat) bring to these far-side market towns the products of their own places: wheat, rice, clarified butter, sesame oil, cotton cloth ... sesame oil was traded along with cloth and wheat for frankincense." Pliny, 1st CE, also writes, "Sesame comes from India."
Now, notice the word we mostly use in India for oil, तेल Tail from Sanskrit Tailam. Can you sense a similarity to the sound of the word तिल, Til? It is understood that the first seed used to extract oil from was our wonder seed, sesame. The ancients possessed this knowledge and used it for many purposes, medical use included.
"उष्णस्त्वच्यो हिमस्पर्श: केशयो बल्य..." It was understood that the oil gets the properties from the seed it is derived from. The qualities of the sesame seed are hot in efficacy, great for skin, hair, cool to touch, strength increasing, and heavy. Sesame oil is the best known in India as a base oil for massage. In Ayurveda the quality of oil is its ability to spread vast. An ability used with great skill in many traditional systems of massage still existing in India.
Jumping many centuries forward we also know in 19th century sesame was also used as an aphrodisiac preparation! Here is a street hawker's song from Delhi documented by the British:
तिल, तिखुर, अल्सी, दाना
घी शक्कर में साना
खाए बुढ्ढे, होए जवाना ! Til, tikhur (East Indian Arrowroot), and alsi (Flax seed), dana (Poppy seeds),
in ghee (clarified-butter) and sugar are mixed
Old fellow eats, he becomes young, fully fixed!
Til is an essential part of many Hindu rituals ranging from funerals to birthdays. In the puranas we are told that sesame has been blessed by the Lord of Death, Yama. It is considered to be the seed of immortality. The word for the final goodbye in the rituals is Tilanjali, Black sesame seeds are used for wishing one's loved one goodbye. In the Shraadh rituals too: the pinda is made of rice balls honey and, yes til seeds.
This little seed pervades India in many, many ways. Til is considered the smallest part of everything. "तिल तिल का हिसाब ..." Account for even the smallest bit. "तिल भर भी जगह नहीं ..." not even the minutest space. And that beauty spot on your beloved's face(mole)? Yes, that is also a Til!
In the seventeenth century Handrik Van Rheede, the governor of Dutch Cochin compiled the mega ethno-medical information book Hortus Malabaricus (1689). He got a distinguished physician priest Itty Achudan of Kerala to co author with the three Konkani Brahmanas—Appu Bhat, Vinayaka Pandit and Ranga Bhat—the ethnomedical information of Malabar region, from Goa to Kanyakumari.
On sesame the book says, "Oil is extracted from the seeds for the benefit of nearly whomever is presented with pains, and the indigenous people use it in a washing solution most regularly, for anointing the body as often as any are troubled by aches. If the Malabar people are to be believed, the oil makes fat people thin, and lean people plump. It dispels cataract and strengthens weak vision when spread thick on the head. From the same oil are prepared ointments for wounds and ulcers..."
Til has many names in India. In the above book it is referred to as ELLU. Thats a name much used in Tamil Nadu for the seeds. But, surprise, surprise. Not just in Tamil. That is also the EXACT word for Sesame oil used across the seas, towards the west in the ancient, now extinct, Akkadian language of Mesopotamia!
Which brings us to our Arabian Night's Simsim.
Have you ever thought, WHY: "Khul ja simsim?" The storyteller could have use any other seed or any other object, then why, "Open up Simsim?" My Amma revealed to me the secret. A secret you can only know if you have seen a simsim grow.
The sesame fruit is like a capsule. Unlike other many plants, it is super quick to let out its seeds. If the branches are not harvested on time and dried in an upright position, the fruits will dry on the branch itself and ... the Simsim will open, spilling its many riches on the earth!
Now if you are wondering if this is only my Amma spinning her story, do some research, watch a sesame grow, and you too shall know! So, hoping you get to savour some of the riches of our real simsim, here is me, waving to this tale ... "Band ho ja Simsim! Close, O Simsim!"