Recently, at home in my kitchen rummaging through cabinets for inspiration of what to make for dinner, I decided I wanted to make a classic Indian dish, Chana Masala. The main ingredient in this recipe is chickpeas, however, pureed or finely diced tomatoes are also essential to the flavor of the food. The only problem—I did not have any tomatoes. Pulling out a jar of tomato sauce I wondered if I could use it as a substitute. It sounded weird, but finding a recipe that said I could use tomato sauce, I decided to go for it. And then, I noticed one other odd, unexpected ingredient in the recipe: Tahini.
Tahini, essentially just a paste made from pure, ground sesame seeds, is an ancient food that originally came from Persia in the 13th century where it was called ‘Ardeh’, and from there, it moved to Israel. It has a texture similar to natural peanut butter and is used for both sweet and savory dishes. Sesame seeds have been cultivated in India since 5000 BC but sometimes references to the food have even been found as far back as 3500 BC. Originally, Tahini was simply a byproduct of sesame oil production but eventually it became a staple of its own.
Many of us know Tahini from Israeli cookbooks or Israeli food, however, Tahini is much more of a global food than you might think. In fact, in most Middle Eastern cultures, the paste is called Tahina, which comes from the Arabic word ‘tahn’ meaning ‘ground.’ Most western countries use the Greek spelling, Tahini, which is the Americanized word for Tahina. When Israelis say it…you will know. They pronounce it Tachina emphasizing the ‘ch’ sound from the back of their throats.
For a long time only the wealthy could afford to get the ingredients that were necessary for making Tahini. In some places, Tahini served as a currency, in other places Tahini was used as a source of oil. The ancient Greeks used sesame as medicine and everywhere, doctors recommended sesame and Tahini for their nutritional values.
Tahini first appeared in the United States in health food stores in the 1940’s. Today, Tahini can be found in Israeli, Middle Eastern, African, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Iranian, Turkish, and Korean cuisines. Interestingly, unlike many trends which push buying local, that is not always the case with Tahini. While sesame seeds are grown all over the world, the sources of the seeds and in which country Tahini is made are important factors to consider for how your Tahini will taste. Cookbook author Adeena Sussman argues that the best sesame seeds come from Ethiopia and are called Humera seeds.
Because of Tahini’s high oil content it should be kept in the refrigerator in order to stay fresh. Middle Eastern restaurants and recipes use Tahini as a sauce or to top main dishes. In Turkey, it is common to mix Tahini with other ingredients to make a breakfast dish called Tahin-Pekmez. In Iraq, Tahini with date syrup makes a sweet dessert, and in Greece, Tahini is spread on bread like jelly. As you can see, Tahini is used and sold everywhere. Its purposes are so versatile that chefs use it for everything.
It turned out that Tahini was the secret ingredient to a successful Chana Masala dish using tomato sauce. Without the Tahini I’m not sure the recipe would have tasted the same. While once Tahini was obscure to American cooks, today it shows up in many American kitchens and pops up in even the most surprising foods. Give it a try. I’m not suggesting randomly throwing Tahini into any dish you make (although you probably could), but look up a few recipes involving Tahini that sound different, such as Sussman’s Tahini Blondies or cookbook author Michael Solomonov’s Tehina “Milk” Shake, and see what happens.
While Tahini is certainly not only an Israeli food, it is very popular in Israel and a common staple in many Israeli recipes, making it appropriate for your Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations. As you celebrate the Israeli Declaration of Independence by eating tons of falafel and hummus and pita…see what new recipe you can whip up using Tahini. It may end up tasting better than you would have expected.