Tahini is one of those ingredients that is better known as a supporting player than as a shining star. All too often, it gets out-dazzled by the chickpea in hummus or relegated to an afterthought when putting together falafel or shawarma. Yet it's truly indispensable in those dishes and more, rightfully proclaiming its status as a heavyweight ingredient that transcends cultural and continental boundaries. In the interest of giving tahini its proper due, here's a primer on the versatile, sesame-based staple and its many uses.
What Is Tahini?
Tahini is a paste made from ground sesame seeds. That's it. Sesame seeds come from the dried out pods of the sesamum indicum plant and are available in a spectrum of colors, including black, tan, gold, and brown. White sesame, particularly that from northern Ethiopia, tends to be the variety of choice for tahini. These seeds are generally plumper and have a higher oil content than other types of sesame.
How It's Made
The only essential step in tahini-making is grinding. But in order to get a velvety smooth texture like the stuff that comes in vacuum-sealed tins, manufacturers also soak, hull, and/or roast the seeds. Sesame seeds are encased in a thin but hardy outer bran, which is also where their pigmentation is located. Leave this on,and you'll get a paste that takes on the color and slightly bitter overtones of the bran, with a coarse and gritty texture.
By giving the seeds a good soak in water, the bran softens up and becomes easy to remove. Afterwards, the remaining kernels can be roasted, adding intensity to the nutty aromatics present in sesame. Most traditional tahini is made with hulled, lightly roasted sesame, although a few regions (such as Gaza), are known for their russet-colored, dark roasted versions.
Where It's Found
Tahini is most closely associated with the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the Levant, Egypt, and Turkey. But it has a presence throughout the wider Middle East, the Caucasus, Northern Africa, and the Balkans. It's actually thought that tahini has its origins in the area around present-day Iran, where it's known as ardeh. The Ottomans are also credited with spreading sesame throughout their empire and popularizing tahini as an ingredient in sesame halvah.
Tahini is a classic condiment for serving with fish, meats, vegetables, shawarma, salads, and falafel (and wafalafels). You'll often find it thinned out with a bit of lemon, water, and garlic for drizzling, in which case it's known as taratour.
Without tahini, dips like hummus and baba ganoush wouldn't have their sturdy backbone. Tahini also has a place in other savory spreads, such as the Turkish teradot, made with coarsely ground walnuts, and certain variations of skordalia, the garlicky Greek dip.
And in a few cases, tahini is allowed to take center stage, boldly displaying its virtues. Sesame soups, such as the Greek tahinosoupa or West African benne soup, have all the creaminess of a chowder without the dairy.
Sweet, Sweet Sesame
It's no secret that tahini has a sweet side, not just as an ingredient in sesame halvah, but also in quite a few regional pastries. There's the Armenian tahinov hatz, a sort of flat pastry disc rolled with tahini, and tahinopita, a dairy-free Cypriot Lenten cake, to name a couple. Tahini mixed with honey or fruit molasses is popular as a breakfast or dessert item in many parts of the Middle East, in a sort of variation on peanut butter and jelly.
Asian Sesame Pastes
East Asian white sesame pastes are fairly similar to tahini, but they tend to be deeply roasted with a more assertive nuttiness. It's certainly possible to swap one for the other in recipes, although the flavor will be slightly different. White sesame's butteriness holds up especially well against the spicy and acidic notes in Asian cuisines, and can be used as a dressing for noodles, leafy greens, tofu, and more.
Black sesame paste, made from unhulled black seeds, is kind of like tahini's intense (but lovable) goth cousin. Although it can be found in a few savory Asian dishes (such as inky kurogoma ramen), its distinct, rich earthiness really excels in desserts. Sweet black sesame porridge and black sesame filled dumplings showcase its straight up flavor, while black sesame custards and ice cream provide the sort of creamy base that allows it to stun and delight.
The Sauce That Keeps On Giving
If there is a caveat to tahini, it might be that you're unlikely to use more than a tablespoon or two at a time, thus jars of it are apt to sit in your pantry for months on end. If you've tried all of the above uses and still have some left, not to worry. One of the magical things about sesame is that is contains relatively stable oils with a high concentration of antioxidants, meaning that tahini can last for a long time before it goes rancid. Although its shelf life can vary depending on factors related to how it is made, such as roasting, it will generally stay good for months, if not years. Like other nut and seed pastes, expired tahini has a musty, stale smell and tastes noticeably bitter and funky.
Do you have any favorite ways of using up a never-ending batch of tahini? Let us know in the comments.
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