Originally from North Africa, the sesame seed (sesamum indicum) comes from an annual plant with long bushy leaves and white or purple tubular flowers.
Benne is the Nigerian name for the seeds, and they are considered lucky in West Africa. Slaves brought them to the United States, and sesame seeds remain a popular baking ingredient throughout the American South. The rest of the country knows them more commonly as a topping for breads, either on their own or mixed with other seeds.
Both white and black seeds are commonly available, and both share a rich nutty flavor that’s greatly improved by toasting. The seed is full of oil, which is used extensively throughout the world. Sesame oil has a short shelf life and should be bought in small quantities or stored in the refrigerator to prevent rancidity.
A common form of sesame is tahini, a paste used in Arabic and Greek cuisine. It’s added to recipes, served as a spread and condiment, or sweetened for candy. The Japanese have a similar sesame paste called neri-goma.
If you can’t find tahini, you can make your own by toasting sesame seeds, and while still warm, pulverizing them in a coffee grinder or small food processor. (The smaller machine forces the seeds into the blade better for a finer paste.)