Unusual Foods: Tahini

—by Monica Rojas

Tahini or tahina is a paste made from ground hulled sesame seeds. Tahini has been around for a very long time. The first written documentation is in a cuneiform document written 4,000 years ago, which talks about the custom of serving the gods a form of sesame wine. Historian Herodotus wrote about cultivating sesame 3,500 years ago by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where it was mainly used as a source of oil. Tahini is mentioned by name in a hummus kasa, a recipe in an anonymous 13th-century Arabic cookbook called Kitab Wasf al-Atima al-Mutada.

Sesame paste is used in many parts of the world, including Middle Eastern, North African, and some Asian countries. Though it is common elsewhere in the world, the United States of America didn’t start selling sesame tahini until the 1940s and then almost exclusively in “health food stores.” The word tahini wasn’t seen in English until the 1930s.

To make tahini, the sesame seeds are first soaked in water. Then they are crushed to separate the bran from the kernels. The crushed seeds are soaked in salt water, so that the bran will sink. Finally the floating kernels are taken off the top, toasted, and ground to produce an oily paste. Because of its oily nature, most manufacturers recommend refrigeration, especially if the tahini is organic.

Tahini is used as a sauce, and depending where you are in the world you may eat it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. In Greece it is common to spread tahini on toast with honey or jam for breakfast. In Israel it is served as a side with pita bread, or on top of falafel. In Turkey it is a common wintertime dessert, eaten with pieces of bread. Here it is most commonly consumed in the form of hummus.


16-ounce can of chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
1⁄4 cup liquid from can of chickpeas
3–5 tablespoons lemon juice (depending on taste)
1-1⁄2 tablespoons tahini
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

Drain chickpeas and set aside liquid from can. Combine remaining ingredients in blender or food processor. Add 1⁄4 cup of liquid from chickpeas. Blend for 3–5 minutes on low until thoroughly mixed and smooth. Place in serving bowl, and create a shallow well in the center of the hummus. Add a small amount (1–2 tablespoons) of olive oil in the well. Garnish with parsley (optional). Serve immediately with fresh, warm, or toasted pita bread, or cover and refrigerate.

2 cups honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-1⁄2 cups toasted unsalted pistachios or almonds
2 cups tahini (stirred smooth)

Heat the honey in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat until it reaches 240° or the “soft ball” stage (syrup dropped into cold water will form a soft, flexible ball). Allow the honey to cool slightly and add the vanilla and nuts. Gently fold in the tahini and stir until the mixture is well blended. Lightly oil a 6–cup mold, loaf, or cake pan. Pour the mixture into the pan and cool completely. Wrap the halvah well and refrigerate for 24–36 hours so the halvah’s characteristic crystallized texture can fully develop. Cut the halvah while it’s cold, but serve at room temperature. Makes about 2 pounds of sweetmeat.

Baba Ganoush
1 medium or 3⁄4 of a large eggplant
1 large clove garlic, grated or finely minced
1 lemon, juiced
2 tablespoons tahini
sea salt
olive oil (for roasting)
Optional: 2 tablespoons fresh basil, cilantro, or parsley, chopped

Preheat oven to high broil (or medium if you have the ability) and position a rack at the top of the oven. Slice your eggplant into 1⁄4 inch rounds, sprinkle with sea salt, and place in a colander to drain any excess liquid. After 10 minutes, rinse slightly and then pat dry between two towels. Arrange on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil and a pinch of sea salt. Roast for 5–10 minutes, turning once or twice, until the eggplant is softened and golden brown. Remove from pan and stack and wrap the rounds in foil to lock in moisture. Wait 5 minutes.

Peel away most of the skin of the eggplant (it’s okay to leave a little) and add flesh to a food processor. It should be soft and tender and the skin should come off easily. Add lemon juice, garlic, tahini, a pinch of salt and mix until creamy. Add herbs last and pulse
to incorporate. Taste and adjust seasonings. I added a bit more tahini and another pinch of salt. Serve with pita bread and/or pita chips and veggies. Will keep covered in the fridge for several days.