Imagine missing your favourite food so much you’d drive halfway across the country to find it. If a story I recently heard isn’t an urban myth, then tahina inspires that sort of devotion.
An Israeli, locked down in rural England during the pandemic, was unable to source the raw paste locally. Pining so much for their staple snack, the sorry sabra drove several hours (each way) to pick up supplies.
“Tahina and the chickpea are core to the Israeli repertoire” says Amelia Saltsman, cookery teacher and author of the Seasonal Jewish Kitchen. “It has a big place in my repertoire, but my Israeli cousins eat it daily — several times a day. It’s soul food!”
It’s hard to understand how a simple seed paste could be a must-have. The raw tahina paste is tasty mixed with lemon juice, water and maybe a little chopped garlic to make the multi-purpose tahina sauce. Tahina paste is also essential in hummus. But what else can you do with it?
“The flavour’s haunting when you use it in cooking so you get a lot of value for your efforts” says Saltsman, who uses it in both savoury and sweet dishes. “I make a tahini butter cookie, which is like a peanut butter cookie but with the distinctive tahini taste.”
She also pairs it with ice cream. “The most simple thing I do is a copy of an amazing dessert I tasted in Jaffa; an sundae made with vanilla ice cream topped with tahina, silan (date syrup), chopped toasted pecans (or walnuts or almonds) and some chunks of chopped halva. It’s delicious! Fresh strawberries are also beautiful with it.”
She recommends it for breakfast, drizzled over “a good piece of nutty, wholegrain, seedy toast, with jam or silan” or over Greek Yoghurt, with silan and a shower of chopped nuts.
On the savoury side, Saltsman says it’s worth mixing up a batch of tahina sauce (with water, lemon and garlic) that then keeps in the fridge for about a week. “It’s a wonderful condiment to always have at the ready.”
She pimps hers up with silan and chilli flakes to give it a zing, or turns it brilliant yellow with a little ground turmeric. “It works with all sorts of grilled or roasted vegetables — I blanch cauliflower florets, then roast them and top with classic tahina sauce or with a green tahina sauce that has a big handful of chopped soft herbs, like coriander, mint and parsley.”
“It lifts it out of the traditional and perks up all sorts of meals. I love Adeena Sussman's recipe from her Sababa cookery book in which she bakes a sweet potato until the skin is really crisp then serve it with green tahina sauce. That’s a great meat-free main.”
Israeli food writer Orly Peli-Bronshtein is the former editor of Israel’s iconic food magazine, Al HaSchulchan and co-author of award-winning book — On the Hummus Route.
She also writes a blog about Israeli food — Sirpele.blog and says, like most Israelis, she grew up eating tahina.
“You can do so much with it,” she says, citing Msabaha, warm, softly cooked chickpeas served in almost soupy hummus and fattet hummus, crispy pita layered with chickpeas, yoghurt and tahina, (see recipe on right hand page Then there’s siniya made with small pieces of meat with tahina poured over the top. It’s baked to create a warm sauce.”
She says that many dips and sauces that have tahina as a base. “In the last year, beetroot has been popular — you add plenty of lemon juice and it’s a beautiful pink/purple colour which makes a dip or a sauce that’s great with roasted cauliflower or eggplant.”
For her, the sesame flavour has a parallel in the Japanese culinary cannon: “I tasted a sesame-based sauce in Tokyo over soba noodles that was really creamy and delicate. My version adds garlic, soy and ginger with tahina to make a quick, dressing that is delicious on coleslaw.”
Peli-Bronshtein also pairs tahina with sweet foods, mixing it with silan or honey. “There’s also now grape syrup which is the new silan, and the next big thing here. And there’s also trend, making gluten-free bread with tahina, egg, honey or maple syrup and baking powder. It’s like magic! If you add seeds it’s like a grain bread and without seeds, it’s a bit like banana bread!”
What makes the best tahina paste? Philip Kahn of Kedem Europe imports Baracke tahina from Israel: “They use Ethiopian Humera sesame seeds, which are the best quality.”
The seeds are soaked in salt water to separate the husks from the bran, then the husks are taken, roasted and ground to tahina paste.
To get the best out of your raw tahina paste, Daniel Abramovich, who imports his own Sesame Kingdom brand from Israel, recommends using ice cold water when making your tahina sauce. “It’s better for the sesame and really opens up the flavours.”
And if it’s not already on your shopping list, you may want to do it for your health. It’s a genuine superfood, loaded with vitamins — including B and E; minerals (magnesium, iron and calcium are high) and healthy fats. It’s also packed with protein — more than milk and most nuts — making it valuable for vegans.
A jar will last one to two years kept away from light and heat. “It may separate, leaving a hard paste with an oily top layer” explains Peli-Bronshtein. If that happens, she advises blending the two back together again.
“Shake your jar from time to time and it will stop it separating” advises Abramovich.
But when you come to love it as much as the Israelis, it should not last long enough to split.