Its name in Iran, ardeh, means ‘holy food’ which demonstrates the love for tahini throughout the Middle East (though East Asia, too, likes a sesame paste). In the Middle East and stretching into the Eastern Mediterranean, tahini goes into dips and into sweets like halva as well as being used as a general condiment alongside grilled meat and fish.
Tahini plays on both the savoury and sweet sides. It has a natural bitterness that is nicely countered with the tartness of things like lemon and yoghurt and the sweetness of things like date and honey, which is just as well because it does cry out to be combined with other ingredients to improve its gluggy texture.
*Toss florets of cauliflower and whole cloves of garlic in plenty of olive oil combined with a Baharat-style spice mix (cumin, cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, ground cardamom, salt) and roast in hot oven until crisp at the edges. Make a dressing of one part tahini to one part lemon juice and one part extra virgin olive oil and mix well through the roasted cauliflower, popping garlic out of their skins as you add them.
*Baba ganoush is best made with the eggplant cooked over charcoal – the smokiness imparted is integral in the dish. Prick 1 large or 2 medium eggplant in a few places and cook over charcoal or flames until the skin is blackened, it looks like a shrunken balloon, and the flesh inside is silky smooth. Scoop out felsh and strain out liquid through a sieve. Mash flesh in a bowl using a fork, mixing in 2 Tbsp tahini, 2 Tbsp lemon juice and 1 crushed clove garlic. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle generously with olive oil and sprinkle with chopped parsley or chives to serve. If you like a smoother version, use a food processor.
*Try this nod to the cold sesame noodles of East Asian kitchens. Cook soba, drain and chill in iced water, then drain. Dress with a blend of one part tahini, one part sesame oil, a small amount of sautéed crushed garlic and ginger, a pinch of sugar and a splash each of chilli oil, soy sauce and rice vinegar. Add blanched shelled edamame beans, finely sliced spring onion, and other seasonal vegetables that take your fancy, or tofu or shredded duck to pad it out. Top with toasted sesame seeds.
*Salmon tarator is a pure showstopper. Take a whole side of local salmon, wrap in tinfoil and bake in hot oven or in a charcoal grill until just cooked through – or keep it a darker shade pink in the middle if you prefer. Combine one part tahini with three parts yoghurt, seasoned with crushed garlic, salt and pepper and a little lemon juice, and set aside. Make tarator topping by combining equal parts finely chopped roasted walnuts, finely chopped red onion, finely chopped coriander, a little finely chopped red chilli and garlic, olive oil, sumac, salt and pepper. Peel skin from cooked salmon (don’t throw this away! It’s so good fried till crisp, as a snack). Top salmon with a thick layer of tahini yoghurt sauce then pile on the tarator evenly and serve.
*Tahini adds a nutty, thick creaminess to smoothies. A delicious breakfast smoothie for two is made by blending a banana, ¼ cup pre-soaked oats, 1 Tbsp tahini, juice ½ lemon, 1 medjool date, 1 cup coconut milk and plenty of ice.
*Another breakfast idea: mix a tahini and honey and use as a spread – great with a thick slab of toasted seeded loaf.
*Kleicha are the national sweet of Iraq. Make a plain dough (flour, yeast, butter, milk, salt). Make filling by heating in a saucepan one part tahini, on part butter, four parts chopped medjool dates (stones removed), a little powdered cardamom and fennel. Stir over low heat until a well-combined paste has formed. Roll out pastry into a large square, spread paste over and roll into a long sausage. Brush with egg wash and roll in nigella seeds. Slice into 1-inch thick pieces and bake in a hot oven until golden and fragrant. Serve with strong tea or cardamom-spiced coffee.
*You can use tahini to bake biscuits much the same as you might use nut butter. Add 1/3 cup tahini along with ½ cup roasted chopped hazlenuts to a standard shortbread recipe (reduce the butter of shortbread recipe by 25g). Experiment with additional complementary flavours: add a little orange blossom water or dried rose petals.
What we call ‘hummus’ is really hummus bi tahini, ‘chickpeas with tahini’, because hummus on its own refers just to chickpeas…
You can buy tahini hulled or unhulled. Of course, the unhulled is better for you – but is a tad more bitter.
Tahini is a pretty decent source of protein.