Sesame oil: the master of all oils [Archives:2009/1225/Last Page]

January 15 2009

By: Nasser Abdullah Nasser Salah
Sesame oil production has long been a feature of Arab history, especially in the Yemeni governorate of Shabwa. One of the first oils to be pressed and an early condiment, sesame oil was used in former times as an appetizer mixed with cardamom, butter, ghee and honey, because it is less fatty than most other types of oil. Despite competition from other kinds of oil on the markets, sesame oil is still widely manufactured and sold throughout Yemen.

Sesame oil presses are spread all over Yemen, and in Shabwa they have been active for years, particularly in Ataq, the capital of the governorate, where a pound of oil extracted from native seeds costs YR 700.

The sesame oil press, ma'sara in Arabic, is traditionally made from the trunk of the cedar or nabk tree, into which a conical hole is made. Other accessories are then added, including al-hamool, a heavy stone covered with camel or cow skin and tightened with ropes, and a thick stick known as al-qutob rotates inside the conical hole where the oil is produced.

A dried spinal cord of sheep after being covered with some ashes is to be put on the head of al-qutob to prevent rubbing and burning during rotation. Although the traditional use of the camel to operate the press has survived to this day, many presses now use a diesel engine or electricity instead.

The process of sesame oil production starts with the sesame seeds -jiljil or simsim- being sifted in a basket-like sieve made of palm leaves called at-tabq to remove any earth and impurities. The seeds are thoroughly rubbed into the at-tabq by a man who stands on the seeds twisting from side to side like a dancer. Once sifted, the sesame seeds are weighed and ready for the press.

Warm water, called as-saqiya, is poured into the press before the sesame seeds are tipped in and the press is started up. It takes about two hours to extract the oil in a camel-powered press, and only an hour and half in one using a generator or electricity. The person in charge busies himself adding water to the press every half an hour and making sure that crushed seeds do not escape from it.

Shortly before the press comes to a halt, the hot oil produced -known as saleed or dahin- is poured from a small can into a pot made of leather known as a garra or butta. When the crushed sesame seeds are completely dry, the press is taken apart. Sesame seed remnants are removed with a sharp iron tool and left-over oil is absorbed with a white cloth then squeezed into the leather garra. Families have long stored sesame oil in these leather pots after lining their inside with either honey or crushed dates to avoid any leaks.

Sesame oil is a source of vitamin E and B6, and is an anti-oxidant correlated with lowering cholesterol levels. It contains magnesium for good vascular and respiratory health, copper which provides relief for rheumatoid arthritis, calcium to help prevent colon cancer, osteoporosis and migraine, and zinc to promote bone health. Research has indicated that the oil can lower high blood pressure and has anti-depressant properties.

In Yemen, sesame oil has long been used both in cooking and raw mixed with honey and milk on bread, and is sometimes mixed with pressed dates. For generations, Yemenis have covered their bodies in sesame oil to keep out the cold and used it as a massage oil -sometimes with salt- for laborers returning from a hard day's work. The oil is traditionally applied to women's hair, is used in the burial ritual and even as lightning fuel with a cotton wick in a black triangle lamp. In local traditional medicine, the oil is used as a remedy against constipation owing to its lubricating effect within the digestive tract, to combat for ear inflammations and as a decongestant for blocked-up noses. In Shabwa, if someone is bitten by a snake, the person who sucks the poison out of the wound first lines his mouth with sesame oil so as not to absorb any of the poison himself.

In Shabwa, good use is also made of the dry sesame seeds after they have been pressed. In the past, they were used to allay hunger, to alleviate stomach pain and as fodder for sheep, goats and camels. The sesame oil press has so permeated Yemenis' lives that it appears in a popular proverb. One camel presses and another camel eats what is pressed, it says, warning against those who live at others' expense.