What is Tahini?

Tahini is one of those kitchen staples along with olive oil, za’atar, and canned chickpeas that we use on everything–from breakfast to dinner there’s always an opportunity to use it.

What can’t tahini do? This sesame seed paste (usually jarred or canned) adds a creaminess to salad dressings and that nutty, slightly-bitter flavor to hummus. It’s scrumptious when drizzled over shakshuka or baked sweet potatoes. It’s even amazing blended with frozen bananas in breakfast smoothies, or slathered on toast! While it’s probably not news to anyone reading this blog, it’s finger-licking good on its own.

Like all good cooks and curious eaters, you’ve probably wondered, what is tahini, really? How do you make it? 

The story begins 3,500 years ago in the region of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, present-day Iraq and Persia, where evidence of sesame seed cultivation was first recorded. At this time, sesame seeds were cultivated for sesame seed oil. Sometime thereafter, tahini, or sesame seed paste, was discovered.

Tahini was traditionally made by separating the sesame seed hull from the bran, and grinding the bran into a paste. This was easily achieved by soaking crushed sesame seeds in salt water, causing the kernels to float at the top, and bran to sink to the bottom. The kernels were skimmed off the surface, roasted, and ground into a creamy paste. Most commercial tahini brands follow this process today, yielding that creamy smooth, light colored tahini paste.

Many adventurous cooks and raw foodies forgo the hulling process and choose to make tahini at home. Tahini can be yours in minutes, with the power of a blender. This route is quick, easy, and produces a chunkier texture and toastier flavors than the smooth store-bought variety. Because it uses both the bran and the hull, this stye of tahini is more nutritious than the smoother paste, full of calcium, B vitamins, and folate.

For more than 2000 years, tahini has played an important role in Middle Eastern cuisine, used in both sweet and savory capacities. It’s most widely known as an essential ingredient in hummus, in which it’s blended with chickpeas. Eat it for dessert in halvah, a confection of tahini and honey.

Beyond hummus and halvah, tahini is also a popular salad dressing or pita sandwich condiment. Tahini sauce is so ubiquitous that you can find it at Trader Joe’s, made with just tahini, lemon juice, and garlic. It’s so easy we prefer to make it ourselves with a recipe like this one: Chickpea Arugula Salad with Creamy Tahini Dressing.

Here are some other recipes that let tahini shine:

Baba Ganoush

Schnitzel Strips with Green Tahini Dip

Summer Salad with Roasted Red Pepper Tahini Dressing

Israeli Breakfast Pizza

Gluten-Free Tahini Halvah Brownies


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