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Back of the cupboard - Tahini

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

"Behind ever great Palestinian dish lies a swirl of tahini. Maybe not every single dish and maybe more or less than a swirl, but, still, it's the absolute golden stuff, very often there in the foreground, background or alongside a dish." Tara Wigley - Falastin

More than Palestinian of course. Basically, it seems to me all through the Middle-east and into Greece, and probably across North Africa too. Nowadays in the other Mediterranean countries too, thanks to immigration.

I don't think I ever came across it in England, although Elizabeth David does give a recipe for hummus in her Mediterranean Food book, but it was probably hard to find tahini, unless you lived near Soho or a posh food shop . We hadn't got into hummus back then. Nowadays, according to Yotam Ottolenghi, some 14% of British households have a jar in their cupboards. As do I. But, maybe, like me, it tends to lurk there after perhaps one attempt at making hummus.

Now I really love hummus, and baba ghanoush too, perhaps even more so, and I have made them both. Hummus takes a few seconds really if you have a can of chick peas to hand. Yes you should make it from real chick peas that you have cooked yourself, but most of us don't. And most of us probably don't have a refined enough palette to taste the difference. Baba ghanoush takes a bit longer, but that too is not complicated. So I really should be making them all the time. But when would I eat them? I don't tend to snack, I can't make good pita bread, and the pita bread you buy in the supermarket is never as good as the stuff you get in any old Greek or Middle-Eastern restaurant. My sister-in-law, mind you, over there in England - and she is not a foodie, has hummus every day. She is probably doing it for health reasons. For you found tahini in health food shops before you found it in the supermarket. Because:

"Tahini contains more protein than milk and most nuts. It's a rich source of B vitamins that boost energy and brain function, vitamin E, which is protective against heart disease and stroke, and important minerals, such as magnesium, iron and calcium." Joanna Blythman - The Guardian

Combining it with chick peas, yoghurt and other 'healthy' things such as lemon juice and olive oil, would of course boost the health benefits even further. Indeed I suspect you might still find it in the health food aisle in the supermarket, rather than with sauces and/or spices.

The photograph at the top of the page, is of 'the real thing' being made in Israel, using the best sesame seeds (from Ethiopia - which is interesting), and ground between custom built grinding stones. I'm sure there are other semi mystical things about the process, and yes, maybe even I would taste the difference between what I get in the supermarket and what is made by hand in Jerusalem. I'm also sure that you can buy superior tahini in either specialist supermarkets like Leo's or in the Middle-eastern shops of Brunswick. And I gather you can tell if it's good quality by the fact that 'real' tahini does not split, so that you have a layer of oil floating on top.

Or you can make your own. A website called Inspired Taste has a recipe, as do several others I have to say, but this one was the first I saw, and it includes a video. Basically all you do is toast your sesame seeds - in this case the pale hulled ones are best - the unhulled ones can be bitter - even Yotam Ottolenghi says so - then you process them in your food processor until you get tahini. You will probably need to add a light oil of some kind to make it creamy enough, but only a couple of spoonfuls. 'Real tahini does not have any added oil. All of the oil comes from the sesame seeds themselves. I might give it a try sometime. When I have finished the lurking jar in my pantry. And then the possibilities are endless it seems for it is:

"the one ingredient that always appeared on the table in both east and west Jerusalem, among Jews and Palestinians alike, at home and in fancy restaurants, fast-food outlets and local eateries. Making an appearance in a variety of guises, it was served to us in its pure state, diluted, plain or seasoned; mixed with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil; combined with peppers or parsley; served as a salad dressing and as a condiment, a sweetened confection and even in a dessert." Yotam Ottolenghi/Sami Tamimi - Jerusalem

Sweet things? Well yes - halva is made with tahini after all. But I did find three sweet recipes and a variation - Sweet tahini rolls - from Sami Tamimi's book Falastin and Date, almond and tahini energy balls from Saffron Tales by Yasmin Khan, Baked sesame and greek yoghurt cheesecake from Rosie Sykes of the Guardian - alas no picture, but Jamie Oliver of all people has a somewhat more complicated recipe for a cheesecake, Sesame and date cheesecake. There are actually a few cheesecake recipes out there, and for those rolls, the energy balls and cookies too.

There is no recipe for the energy balls from Saffron Tales online but it is very simple. Process together, 150g Medjool dates, 130g almonds, 2 tbsp tahini, 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/4 tsp vanilla extract and a pinch of salt. Shape into balls and roll in 2tbsp of ground almonds. Yum. The rolls/buns are slightly more complicated and the cheesecakes too.

Then there is tahini sauce.

Tahini sauce is basically tahini mixed with lemon juice and garlic. Ottolenghi's quantities are 150g tahini paste, 120ml water, 2 tbsp lemon juice, 1 medium crushed garlic clove and 1/4 tsp salt. The resulting sauce is drizzled over just about everything. And obviously you can tart this up with herbs as well and sometimes yoghurt seems to be added to the mix. The star recipe here, it seemed to me was Greg Malouf's Baked salmon tartar style, as demonstrated in the video you can find on that page. Next time you are cooking for a crowd give it a go. The recipe was for a whole salmon, but I guess you could adapt it for a smaller piece.

And whilst we are still on fish, and I have to say, that fish was big when it came to tahini sauce, there is also this recipe for Baked fish in tahini sauce from Falastin. Alas no recipe online, although this one from the Washington Post is pretty much identical, although there is no acknowledgement - well it's not quite the same. In Sami Tamimi's recipe, after frying the fish is put into a baking dish and covered with a sauce made from tahini sauce, mixed with caramelised onions and chopped chilli, covered with pine nuts and baked in the oven. A sort of Palestinian fish pie.

To conclude , four dishes to tempt you into using tahini rather more frequently - well for me anyway. A simple mezze dish from Yotam Ottolenghi - Peas, tahini, za'atar; also from Ottolenghi - Hummus kawarma (lamb) with lemon sauce - which is marinated fried and shredded lamb served over a base of home-made hummus, Kofta with tahini, potato and onion, from Falastin and the very much humbler, Mushrooms, chickpeas, tahini from Nigel Slater. Again, alas there is no recipe online for the meatballs so maybe, in spite of my earlier reservations you should treat yourself to Falastin. I must say that when I was preparing for this post I found several very tempting looking recipes - not all of them for tahini dishes. So maybe I just wasn't in the mood when I 'reviewed' it. I did find a similar recipe from a blog called Chef in Disguise and I think the Washington Post, again, may actually have the 'real' recipe, but you have to subscribe to see more than one article, so I couldn't check it out. Basically though it's meat balls, first baked on their own until brown, potatoes added, then covered with a lemony tahini sauce and cook until done.

So I really shouldn't ignore this valuable ingredient, although I do find it interesting that it doesn't seem to have travelled into other cuisines. I mean the Chinese obviously have sesame seeds, for example - but they turn it into sesame oil, which is clear, not cloudy like tahini. I should look into the difference some time.

"Tahini ... is to have around to drizzle on your toast and on your yoghurt and ice cream and salad and salmon and lentils and, and, and ..." Tara Wigley - Falastin

Maybe when we will at last be able to have larger gatherings I shall make a few of the mezze things.


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