Adeena Sussman gives Sally Swift the backstory on tahini, the suddenly ubiquitous, sesame seed-based condiment.
Sally Swift: So, tahini. It is everywhere suddenly. So, let’s back up a little bit. Tell us exactly what tahini is.
Adeena Sussman: Tahini is ideally nothing more than pure ground sesame seeds.
SS: That’s it?
AS: Yep. Sesame seed is an ancient food. It’s been cultivated in India since 5000 BC, and there are references to it found on cuneiforms from 3500 BC. It’s got a lot of history.
It’s grown in different parts of the world, but the best sesame seeds come from Ethiopia, and they’re called Humera seeds. You want to look for tahini made with Ethiopian seeds. It’s also interesting and important where the tahini is made, specifically which country, but also the source of the seeds. Unlike other food trends right now, it’s not necessarily about buying local. It’s about buying the best.
SS: Where does the flavor come from with tahini? Is it in the roasting or is it just in the raw seed?
AS: No, it comes from a variety of places. The Humera seeds specifically are prized for the soil in which they’re grown, so I think there is some value in the terroir. The soil is very rich in certain minerals and grows other things that imbue the seeds with deep flavor. But, yes, the roasting and the grinding process also impact the flavor.
SS: What should good tahini taste like?
AS: It definitely should have a light and toasty sesame seed flavor, and it should definitely have a bit of a richness to it.
You know, one of the reasons it’s so delicious is because it is high in fat, while it’s also nutritionally dense. It contains a lot of Vitamin B and E, magnesium, iron, and calcium. It’s actually surprisingly high in calcium.
It’s also nutritionally dense because it contains what we now refer to as “good” fats. It should definitely have a sticky and silky mouth feel. I have definitely been noticing with some of the newer tahinis that there are some differences in the texture.
SS: What about bitterness? Because I associate tahini a little bit with bitterness, and I may have never had good tahini to be perfectly honest.
AS: I don’t think the bitterness is necessarily a bad thing. When I think about having a sesame cookie, there is a bit of bitterness on the back, and it’s certainly concentrated in that form. But I would agree that the purer the product, the less bitter it is.
SS: Now we’re seeing all kinds of small-batch tahini showing up. Can you give us some names of people who are making the good stuff?
AS: Sure. Michael Solomonov, the chef of Zahav Restaurant in Philadelphia, which was the first Israeli restaurant to win a James Beard award. He commissioned a local company to make tahini for his restaurant and it’s called Soom Foods. “Soomsoom” is sesame in Hebrew, so Soom is a take on that. It’s a company run by three sisters, and they create two kinds of tahini at this point. They create a traditional tahini and also what they call a chocolate sesame butter, which is really delicious.
SS: Now that seems like a good idea.
AS: It’s really amazing, and when you taste it, it calls to mind all kinds of things for me, one of which is Nutella, and another is something called chocolate spread, which is a staple in Israel and kind of like Nutella without the nuts. It’s just a pure sort of chocolate spread.
There’s another company that’s producing artisanal tahini in New York: Seed + Mill. They’re based in Chelsea Market, and it’s three friends who became business partners and saw a rising interest in products using sesame. They sell traditional tahini, which has the hulls removed, but they also sell a whole grain tahini, which means that the hulls are still intact on top of the sesame seeds. That has a darker color and a slightly different texture.
They also sell what’s called green tahini, which is ubiquitous at falafel shops in Israel, and it’s tahini that has been mixed with salt and potentially a little bit of olive oil and, most importantly, green herbs like cilantro and parsley. So it’s like a bit of a dressing that you can just use many different ways.
SS: It sounds delicious, and it reminds you how flexible tahini really can be. Give me some ideas for things that we can do with tahini, besides putting it on my delicious falafel sandwich.
AS: One of the things that I really enjoy in Israel is putting it on my soft-serve, tart frozen yogurt. They have tahini in the squeeze jar, and you can squeeze it right on the frozen yogurt. It’s a great thing to put on ice cream, and it kind of freezes up a little bit, almost like a Magic Shell, except much healthier.
Another thing you can do is cloak fish in tahini and roast it like a fish fillet. It sort of has a similar effect to baking fish in salt. It creates a crust, and the only difference is that this is a crust that you can eat. It gets a little bit charred around the edges and it hardens up a little, and it has the effect of keeping all of the juices and moisture inside of the fish.
One of the dishes that really kicked off the tahini trend was something at a restaurant in Jerusalem called Machane Yehuda. Hamshuka is a lamb and chickpea mixture in a small individual skillet that’s baked with a beautiful, rich tahini sauce, and it’s just incredible. The combination of tahini and roasted meat is also really interesting. Sort of like pairing rich with rich, but to magical effect.
SS: It sounds delicious. When I was in Israel, I had someone give me a kind of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but it was date molasses with tahini spread on it, and it was pretty dreamy.
AS: Silan, which is date syrup or date honey or date molasses, is really coming on strong as a sweetener, and it’s a real natural pairing with tahini. Another wonderful thing is to take medjool dates, pit them, and stir them with some tahini and a little bit of cocoa to create date tahini cocoa truffles. They’re a real energy-boosting, delicious, and natural dessert.
Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.