Let's Eat

Tahina 101

The lowdown on the Middle Eastern pantry staple


What actually is it?
Essentially it’s ground sesame seeds — and the Middle Eastern equivalent of peanut butter — eaten sweet and savoury and a permanent fixture on their kitchen counters. 
Do I call it tahina or tahini?
You’ll hear it being called tahina or tahini. What’s the difference? Nothing. Two ways of describing the same thing. 
What’s the difference between raw tahina and tahina sauce? 
Raw tahina is NOT the same as tahina sauce. Raw tahina is the raw ingredient used in hummus. Tahina sauce is the combination of raw tahina, water, lemon juice, garlic and salt and the creamy dressing you drizzle over your salad, shawarma and falafel. 
And dark or light tahina? 
Dark tahina is made from unhulled sesame seeds and is more bitter than its light tahina cousin — from which the seeds’ hulls have been removed. Light tahina is milder and the type you’re more likely to find in supermarkets.  
Why would I want to eat it? 
Quite simply, it’s a superfood. Nutritionist Laura Southern of London Food Therapy says: “I’m such a huge tahini fan – I go through pots of it! It’s amazingly nutritious. Seeds are nutrient-powerhouses but it can be hard to extract all the goodness from them, so when they’re ground into a paste it makes it easy for our body to utilise.
She adds that it supports bone health - it contains high levels of calcium and magnesium both essential nutrients for bones — which is why she recommends it for anyone on a dairy free diet, especially peri- and post-menopausal women as well as for children.
Not only that, but Southern says Tahini is high in essential fats (poly and mono unsaturated) which have been shown to have cancer and heart protective effects. 
So how is it made?
Sesame seeds are soaked in salted water so the bran separates from the husk. The husks are roasted and ground. Roasting times and temperatures vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, as they are part of the individual recipe. 
And how do I know which is the best quality?
The best sesame seeds are grown in Ethopia, in a place called Humera — known as Humera seeds. The quality of the tahina then comes down to how and where it’s processed. Al Arz is hugely popular with top chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi; Soom is the gourmet pick in the US, but sadly not available this side of the pond. 
Which one do you recommend? 
Personally, I would not bother with anything not made the Middle East. The Greek or Cypriot versions that you find in some supermarkets and health food stores give tahina a bad name. 
My current favourites are Baracke and Sesame Kingdom — both Israeli and made from top class, Ethiopian Humera sesame seeds.
The pot of Baracke in my cupboard hasn’t separated at all, although it probably hasn’t had time — I’ve whizzed through it so fast. 
Israeli chef, Eyal Jagermann, headed up The Barbary restaurant when it opened and is currently working on new pop up, Anan. Not surprisingly, he says he’s obsessed with tahina. He recommends a brand called Har Bracha, made by a small, family-run factory on Mount Grizim in Israel. “The use traditional roasting and grinding methods, which produce a wonderful smooth and delicious tahina! For me it’s the best in the world!” 
With our chances of jetting to Jerusalem any time soon pretty minimal, look out for Belazu tahina, as Har Bracha supply them. 
I’ve taken the plunge – how should I store my new jar of tahina? 
Advice on storage has varied from expert to expert. It should last from six months to a couple of years IF you avoid it getting too hot and don’t leave it in direct sunlight. It’s jam packed with oils which could go rancid, so heat and light are best avoided. 
Argh! Mine has gone all oily on top and the bottom is like concrete! What’s happened? 
It’s so full of oil, it can start to separate — the oils floating up and the paste sinking to a chalky lump in the base of the jar. If that happens, Israeli food writer, Orly Peli-Bronshtein, author of On the Hummus Route recommends sticking it in a blender to return it to an emulsified, smooth paste. She does not recommend refrigerating it, which would prolong its life, but would make the paste solidify.
If your jar is going to be around a while, Daniel Abramovich — who imports his own Sesame Kingdom tahina — suggests giving your jar a shake from time to time to prevent the splitting process. 
Once you take the plunge, I guarantee you will be addicted. And it’s so good for you, it’s a habit you won’t need to break. 

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