It seems like every region of the world has its preferred condiment: one that is essential to that cuisine. In my native Japan, it’s soy sauce. In my also-native Midwest, it’s almost certainly mayonnaise (don’t judge). As I discovered during my travels to the Middle East, it’s tahini. But what exactly is this beloved condiment and how did it get so popular? Let’s take a closer look.
Tahini is a paste made from ground sesame seeds. The exact origin of tahini is not known, but it is believed to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean region, where sesame seeds have been cultivated for thousands of years. Sesame seeds – I found out – were first domesticated in India and then spread to other parts of the world, including the Middle East and Africa. Tahini itself is mentioned in ancient texts such as the Talmud and the Kitab al-Tabikh (Book of Cookery), a 13th-century Arabic cookbook. Unlike the mayo of my childhood, this is a condiment with some serious history!
How Is It Eaten?
One of the primary uses of tahini in the Middle East is as a dip. It is commonly served with falafel, which for me is one of the ultimate vegan comfort foods. Tahini adds a creamy texture and nutty flavor to the dish, balancing out the spices and herbs. Tahini’s smooth texture and subtle flavor make it a great base for other iconic Middle Eastern dishes: namely hummus. More on that later (you didn’t think I’d go all the way to Egypt and not come back with a hummus recipe?!).
Tahini is also used as a sauce in many Middle Eastern dishes, such as shawarma and kebabs. In these dishes, tahini is mixed with lemon juice, garlic, and other spices to create a tangy and flavorful sauce. It is also commonly used as a salad dressing, mixed with olive oil, lemon juice, and herbs. After my trip, I’ve been adding tahini to my salad dressings lately and – let me tell you – it adds a creamy texture I just can’t get enough of.
The Middle East is the birthplace of several of the world’s major religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Interestingly, tahini plays a part in many religious rituals. In Jewish cuisine, tahini is often used during the Passover holiday as a substitute for butter or cream in dishes. In Muslim countries, tahini is traditionally served during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. It is believed to be a nourishing food that provides sustained energy throughout the day. And while I didn’t do any fasting during my trip (unless you count the ridiculously long time between breakfast and my 10 am snack), I found that this nutritious food gave me the energy I needed to hit the ground running.
Tahini’s Popularity Around the World
In recent years, tahini has gained popularity outside of the Middle East, thanks in part to the rise of vegan and plant-based diets (shout out to my fellow veg-heads!). It is now commonly used as a substitute for dairy products in vegan cooking, as well as a flavorful ingredient in smoothies, sauces, and dressings.
You can buy jars of tahini at Middle Eastern specialty stores (and frankly, many generic supermarkets), but as always, you’ll get the best flavor by making it yourself. Really all you need is sesame seeds, though some folks like to add natural oils like grapeseed oil to thin it out. And I can tell you this much: when you make your own hummus using tahini that you’ve also made yourself, it’s like deliciousness squared.
Hummus by the way, is pretty high on my shortlist of favorite foods ever. So let’s explore it in our next article. Hope you’re not too hungry…
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