I thought my first encounter with tahini was when I stumbled into a cafe in Cihangir, hungry from running 10km in the 36th Istanbul Marathon, ready to dive into the breakfast spreads and breads before me. At that moment, the tahini dip—fragrant, toasty, creamy tahini—was so special and novel, that I wondered how I could possibly get more of it. But it seems like I already had. And, guess what, you probably have tasted this sesame seed spread before as well.
If you’ve had hummus — tahini is the second-most important ingredient in this food dip. If you’ve had baba ghanoush, another Middle Eastern spread, you’ve also had tahini. So many classic dishes use tahini, because it’s an old favorite of many cultures, especially in the Middle East and in East Asia. In fact, the primary component of tahini—sesame seeds—may be the oldest condiment known to man! It’s name, ‘Tahini’, is very similar in Hebrew (טחינה), and in Arabic (طحينية). Tahini’s importance in the history of civilizations can also be seen in how the word ‘tahini’ is also very similar to the Hebrew word for grinding (טחינה), as well as the Arabic word for flour (طحين). When those cultures were naming the resources they prized and valued, tahini, flour, and wheat were closely associated.
We see the lore of sesame in many parts of the world too. The famous phrase from the Arabian Nights (‘Open Sesame!’) references the distinguishing feature of the sesame seed pod, which bursts open when ripe. In Ancient Greece, sesame was food as well as medicine, praised by Hippocrates for its high nutritional content. For India, the sesame seed is classified as ‘sattvic’, or pure, because it nourishes the body, mind, and soul. In traditional chinese medicine, if you wanted to hold on to beauty and reach toward longevity, the sesame seed’s vitamin B and iron was said to be helpful.
So what better way to ingest this ancient favorite, than in a creamy paste form?
Tahini is also called sesame butter or sesame paste, and is traditionally made with the kernel of sesame seeds. After being soaked overnight, sesame seeds have their outer hulls removed, and the inside kernel is toasted and ground. Of course, there are also tahinis whose seed hulls are not removed; they taste more bitter but pack in a lot more nutrition.
If you’ve never had tahini, it’s close to peanut butter, except more silky, less sweet, and with sesame instead of peanut. Both have naturally occurring oils and are calorie-dense. Compared to peanut butter, tahini has higher levels of fiber and calcium, and lower levels of sugar and saturated fats. Especially if you can get homemade tahini at one of the numerous markets across Istanbul, as opposed to the mass-produced store-bought jars.
In Turkey, when tahini is used in breakfast, it tends to be accompanied by pekmez, or, fruit molasses. The two can either be mixed or will arrive in separate saucers for you to combine as you wish. The next time you see tahin pekmez on the menu, you know you’re in for a nutty, sticky sweet time.
You can also taste the intriguing tang of sesame in helva (specfically, in tahin helvası), which uses tahini and sugar to make a highly addictive confectionary sweet. In Çanakkale, my friends and I waited in line for nearly a kilogram of the stuff, and had to ration the dense snack lest we finish it that very hour.
Perhaps, it wouldn’t have been too indulgent if we had finished our helva in a day, since tahini has plenty of health benefits. While it is calorie-dense, it has a low glycemic index, which means that your body will absorb it more slowly and steadily. Tahini provides a powerful punch of copper, manganese and other minerals like calcium and zinc. If you want to lower your blood pressure, or increase your bone mineral density, you can definitely consider including this delectable spread. Make a dressing out of it, replace your peanut butter with it, or even add it to your omelets and soup! Tahini is magnificent on its own, and great in binding ingredients — you can never go too wrong with such an enduring choice.
Singaporean born in late April ’93, studying in Boston and now beautiful Istanbul. Loves food and stories, reading and rock climbing.