A tryst with tahini

A tryst with tahini

There are 10 or so things in my kitchen that I can’t do without. Olive oil and lemons. Red wine vinegar and tomatoes, when they’re in season. Coffee to start the day. Wine, bread, cheese and chocolate to end it. Tahini is there, too, ready to be drizzled on toast or whisked into a sauce or dressing.

If I were to lay these things out on my table, tahini might be, to many, the odd one out. For all of the other ingredients, there’s a real range in quality that is widely accepted and understood. It’s the difference between pre-sliced industrial white bread and handmade sourdough; between instant coffee and freshly ground beans; between run-of-the-mill vinegar and one that perfectly balances fruit and acidity. Or think of Sicilian unwaxed lemons, single-origin chocolate and artisanal cheese. We can draw a line between these more rarefied items and their mass-market counterparts.


But tahini? That jar sitting at the back of the cupboard, its contents split in two, with a layer of oil sitting on top of packed sesame paste? That jar you reach for to make hummus or baba ghanouj, its packaging timeless, rooted in the health food shop circa 1970?


For me, however, and everyone else who grew up in the Middle East, tahini is as loved and revered a staple as olive oil or wine. And, as with oil and wine, the variables for making exceptional tahini are wide and many.


Unlike Greek or Cypriot tahini, which I find to be claggy and bitter, tahini from the Middle East is creamy enough to pour over porridge, nutty enough to spread on toast, and smooth enough to eat by the spoon. Its colour can range from a light beige to a deep red, depending on how long the seeds are roasted. It will still separate when it’s left to sit, yes, with the oil rising to the top, but it comes together smoothly when stirred.


Rare is the dish not improved with a drizzle of tahini sauce, made from simply mixing raw tahini with some lemon juice, water, garlic and salt. Grilled meats and fish, roasted root vegetables, a chopped fresh tomato and cucumber salad: All are enriched by it. A Palestinian main course like lamb siniyah makes a star of tahini, which is poured over cooked lamb and baked in the oven to form a thick and rich crust — an alternative to the mashed potatoes on top of a shepherd’s pie, if you like.


Sweet things also welcome the creamy nuttiness of tahini. As well as baking tahini cookies and cakes, I like to make halvah-studded brownies with tahini swirled through the batter before it goes in the oven. Good tahini is also delicious as is, drizzled over ice cream.


Making of tahini starts with the sourcing of the sesame seed, the best of which is the coveted humera variety from Ethiopia, which has a real richness that other seeds from Mexico and India can lack. From there, it’s all about the way the seeds are hulled and roasted, and then, crucially, the old millstones used to grind them. When tahini is mass-produced, the seeds are not always perfectly peeled, and can be over-roasted or not roasted at all. Getting hold of what I call “proper” tahini — maybe it needs to be called “artisanal” to gain the kudos it deserves — outside the Middle East is not as easy as getting hold of either the 1970s style or the Greek or Cypriot varieties, but it is absolutely there to find, for those who want it, in Middle Eastern shops or online. The scale of production at a mill like Jebrini is more for the local market, but look for Al Arz from Israel (which I tend to use), Al Taj from Lebanon or the famous “camel tahini,” Al-Jamal, from Palestine, with a camel on the label.

If what you think of as tahini is not creamy and delicious and nutty enough to eat directly from the jar, then you’re missing a trick. Go seek it out.


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