One of the mainstays of Middle Eastern cuisine is tahini, a ground paste made from sesame seeds. In Arabic and Hebrew, it is known as techinah, while the Turkish word, tahin, is obviously closely related. The root of the word appears to be an Arabic word meaning “to grind,” which is also used as a base for other words describing ground foods, such as flour. Unlike sesame paste, a popular ingredient in Asian cuisine, tahini is made from sesame seeds which have been hulled, so it is a more refined product, and it also has less nutritional value, as the outer casing of the sesame seeds has been removed. In addition, tahini tends to be lighter in color than Asian sesame paste.
To make tahini, sesame seeds are typically blanched in hot water to remove their hulls, which float to the top. The hulls are skimmed off and the remaining flesh of the seeds is allowed to drain before being ground, usually with a small addition of salt, and sometimes olive as well. The result is a thick, nutty paste, like nut butters in consistency and flavor. When stored in an airtight container, tahini can be kept at room temperature, but once the container is opened, it should be refrigerated so that the oil from the sesame seeds does not go rancid.
In Middle Eastern cuisine, tahini appears most often in hummus, baba ghanouj, and halvah. Both hummus and baba ghanouj use a base of tahini, lemon, oil, and garlic to hold the dish together, while halvah is a dessert candy made with tahini and a sweetener such as honey. Often, other ingredients are added to the halvah to add texture and flavor. All of these dishes are very popular around the Mediterranean.
Additionally, tahini is used as a base for sauces. Tahini-rich sauces are used as dressings for meat, vegetables, and salads. Typically, the dressing is made by thinning tahini with ingredients such as lemon juice or water, and ingredients such as dill, pepper, or other herbs may be added for flavor. Many of these sauces also incorporate olive oil, a staple of Mediterranean cuisine.
Tahini can be used to replace sesame paste in Asian cooking as well. Especially in Japan, sesame paste is used as the base for many dips and sauces, and it is sometimes used in soups as well. The flavor of tahini is comparable to sesame paste, although it tends to be more creamy, with less of the slightly gritty texture of sesame paste.