In the past two years, I’ve taken you into the vineyards of Napa, Valais, Switzerland and Piemonte, Italy and the Valle Grana in the Cottian where we savored Castelmagno cheese. We’ve explored culinary delights in Colorado, New Orleans, Crans-Montana, Switzerland and Alba and Canale, Italy. The one place I haven’t taken you is to the land of my husband’s birth, Israel. Her somewhat mystical culinary treasures rooted in a millennium of desert living are gems overshadowed by decades of strife.
As an introduction to Middle Eastern culinary exploration, let’s make a brief virtual epicurean sojourn to the eastern Mediterranean to experience the origins of an ancient Middle Eastern culinary basic, tahini. Experiencing all of Israel’s epicurean landscape is far beyond the scope of this one, short article. We’ll save that mouth-watering adventure for another day.
Growing up in New Orleans and Louisiana’s Bayou Country exposed me to foods of varying flavors and textures that sparked my love for gastronomy. However, no matter how adventuresome my first 28 years of life had been, nothing came close to my culinary safari of my first trip to Israel in April 1986. As with most every Middle Eastern meals, it all began with tahini. In our home, tahini graces many of my dinner parties and delights unsuspecting guests.
Tiny seed, big flavor and nutrition
Tahini is one of those derived words with numerous pronunciations. It’s presence in so many different cultures yields different spellings, leading to different pronunciations. “Tahini” is most commonly heard in America and what I’ll use here. Note, however, “tahina” is perfectly correct given its the transliteration of the Arabic and Hebrew “tachinah,” and is the most common version spoken in our home.
Tahini is ubiquitous in Middle Eastern, North African and Greek cultures. The thick, pale white paste is made from grinding hulled sesame seeds. Although mainly used for oil at the time, sesame has a 6,000-year presence in history. It’s first use was recorded in modern-day Iraq in 4000 B.C.
Ethiopia — where the seed is a $9 billion annual crop second only to coffee — produces the highest quality sesame seeds. More than 600,000 small farmers produce the crop that has seen recent annual grow rates of as much as 85 percent, attributed to huge demand in China. The prized whitish Ethiopian Humera seeds make the best tahini and manufacturers often use this fact in describing their product. Hulled and ground to a thick paste, it is the starting point for the sauce that elevates everything it accompanies.
Tahini possesses more than great, beguiling flavor. This nutritious functional food provides high amounts of calcium, B vitamins, omega -3 and -6 fatty acids, protein and dietary fiber. For some reason, however, the paste resulting from raw tahini is lower in calories than its roasted counterpart. It’s popular with vegans, although I’m still trying to figure out how anyone can be vegan. No offense, vegans.
Disputes about who makes the best tahini are far more intense than those about the correct pronunciation. In our house, thanks to my sister-in-law Ilana in Tel Aviv, we are blessed to have what many consider the best tahini paste in Israel — Har Bracha — made from Ethiopian Humera sesame seeds. It’s a pale white, creamy paste that, if kept refrigerated after opening doesn’t separate. There are many Arabic and Israeli brands available in the United States either in Middle Eastern markets or online where you’ll find a slew of excellent choices.
Internet research yielded recipes on how to make the paste at home from sesame seeds and oil for what some claim has a more delicate, fresher taste. I prefer to buy it. Either way, there is no reason not to have a jar of this divine, healthy paste in your refrigerator, but note, it needs a bit more loving before it can be enjoyed.
Simplicity yields deliciousness
Making the paste is extremely simple. Israeli born American chef Alon Shaya is the co-owner and executive chef of the Besh Group’s Domenica in New Orleans and has been a great resource for me. About a month ago, I wrote about Shaya and his delicious Two Run Farm lamb bolognese over tahini, so I asked him two basic questions: Which tahini brand does he use and how does he prepare his sauce?
It’s mind blowing how easy it is and a testimony to flavorful Mediterranean cuisine’s simplicity. Four ingredients — lemon juice, crushed garlic, salt and water — transform the simple paste into a delicious velvety sauce.
Shaya uses Biladi tahini that’s oddly enough manufactured in Mexico. Whichever brand you choose, make sure it’s light in color — an off-white color is what I look for — and one that doesn’t separate easily, otherwise you find yourself stirring the hard solids and oil. While it makes for a good upper body workout, it’s a waste of time and effort. Refrigeration also helps preserve tahini, making it easy to keep for several months. Of course, that’s rarely an issue for me as we use it so often.
Many people add cumin, paprika, parsley and even olive oil. I agree with Shaya, however, that simple is better with high quality paste. You really want to taste the sesame. Although I prepare my sauce as Shaya recommends, I’ve found using chilled water brings it together faster. Fresh lemon juice obviously is best since lemon is a key ingredient. You don’t use poor quality wine in a sauce — or at least you shouldn’t — so only use fresh lemon juice in your cooking. I also add fresh ground black pepper from time-to-time, depending on my planned end-use. If serving it as a dip for pita or raw vegetables or a traditional topping on humus, then I sprinkle Hungarian paprika and roasted pine nuts on top for a pretty presentation.
Tahini has as many uses as your imagination will permit. As a salad dressing, I thin it with cold water and add a tablespoon of extra virgin oil — a bit like gilding the lily — and za’atar (something we’ll explore at a later date). Tahini is also delicious as a condiment for meat and poultry, particularly lamb. Palestinian synia is one of my favorite uses for tahini.
I first tasted synia in an Arab restaurant in Haifa. I’ve spent nearly 30 years trying to perfect it and I’m getting close. It’s a simple ground meat dish mixed with sauteed onions — I add garlic — spices such as cumin, coriander, allspice and turmeric, to name a few, toasted pine nuts and parsley. The partially cooked meat mixture is topped with tahini and baked in a medium oven for about 15 to 20 minutes. The Palestinian use aluminum pans for baking and serving. It’s a delicious dinner, particularly when served with pita bread, salad and Israeli pickles. My meat of choice is lamb, but beef is a good option, too. The same concept of pouring tahini on to fish and chicken works well, too.
Whichever way you use tahini, make a batch of sauce to have it available for several days. It’s higher in calories than humus, but infinitely worth the flavor. A little goes a long way! Don’t forget some halva, too. The sweeter side of tahini is not to be missed.