Spotlight Ingredient: Tahini

Spoonful of raw tahini
Spoonful of raw tahini

Growing up, I could never have enough tahini. It was one of these ingredients that can at all times be found in my mom’s kitchen pantry or in the middle of our dinner table, along with the extra virgin olive oil, molasses, and condiments. Every seafood dish had to come with a side of tahini seasoned with garlic, ground cumin and lots of lemon juice, and I quickly learned that tahini swirled into a plate with black molasses can really satisfy a sweet craving in the middle of the day. I remember one summer back when I was still a young girl – about eight or nine years old – when I was in Egypt and learned of the tahini and molasses combo: I’d dip into a huge plate of it with freshly baked bread from the furn (bakery). The sweetness kept me coming for more, and by the end of the summer, I was a good 5-6 pounds heavier!

What is tahini?

Tahini, sometimes also affectionately named tahina in the Arab world, is basically sesame seed paste. It is the main ingredient in several savory  traditional dishes, including hummus (consisting of chickpeas with tahini and spices), baba ghannoush (tahini with roasted eggplant), tahini-garlic spread, Jerusalem salad (often poured over ful muddamas or falafel sandwiches), as well as sweets like halva (or halawa), which is a delicate mixture of tahini and sugar. Tahini’s versatility in recipes and subtle, rich flavor make it a staple in every Middle Eastern kitchen, and it’s gaining popularity in Western cuisine as well!

Is tahini healthy?

When eaten in moderation, tahini is actually a very nutritious food. Because it’s ground into a paste, it is easily digestible, and its nutritional profile impresses most health-conscious individuals. Tahini is probably one of the foods with highest calcium content – sometimes with only 35 grams containing as much as 35% of the recommended daily calcium intake, which makes it useful for cancer prevention. It also boasts a decent iron content and B Vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5 and B15) that can help with healthy cell growth and rejuvination (Natural News). Tahini also contains healthy plant fats that aid in the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients that are found in tahini and the main dishes that tahini often complements; this is also the reason it makes for good salad dressing.

Are all tahini jars sold in stores the same? What is the best type of tahini?

As with any type of food, there are healthy versions of it, and not-so-healthy versions of it. Traditional North African tahini is made by lightly roasting the hulled sesame seeds, and then grinding it. That’s the standard tahini you’ll find at the Middle Eastern store. A better kind of tahini is made from raw sesame seeds, which have not been exposed to heat (high heat often destroys the nutrients in some foods). The brand of tahini pictured below is what I buy – called Living Tree Sesame Tahini. You can buy it on Amazon, but I bought a three-pack from Natural News Store for $28.37 (the 3-pack). As compared to other tahini brands that don’t use raw, organically grown sesame seeds (without use of pesticides or chemicals), the Living Tree brand also has no oils added, which gives the tahini a thicker consistency. This is healthier because most brands add low-quality oil to thin out the texture and add volume, but this one is just the real deal – ground sesame seeds – that’s it!

Sesame seed paste, or tahini

What about black tahini made from black sesame seeds? 

Since my obsession with tahini began a few years ago, I was always curious about black sesame seeds. They exist – I had seen them at Whole Foods, but I’ve never noticed them in Middle Eastern recipes. Had anyone tried making tahini paste or tahini butter out of black sesame seeds? Turns out that everything exists online … A few days ago I found a brand of Organic Raw Black Sesame Tahini, also from the Natural News Store, for $11.45 per 8 Fl. Oz. jar. It’s a bit out of my price range, especially because it’s not really a staple like the regular, light-colored tahini, but I decided to invest in my curiosity a bit and ordered one jar. Similar to the Living Tree brand, this tahini is also raw (unheated), and with no added oils. However, this brand, called Better than Roasted, offers the added benefit of soaking the sesame seeds and dehydrating them prior to grinding them. What’s so advantageous about that, you may be wondering? According to the website and the sticker on the jar:

“Our Better Than Roasted® process maximizes the bioavailability of essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in our nuts and seeds. We begin with nuts and seeds that are raw, premium, whole, and certified organic. We then hand sort, soak, rinse, and dry them at a low temperature, not exceeding 108° F, which preserves temperature-sensitive enzymes and nutrients. Our sprouted and dehydrated nuts and seeds are easier to digest because our process reduces the amount of phytates in nuts and seeds, which have been found to inhibit digestion (BTR)”

Black sesame seed butter, or black tahini

If you’re curious about black tahini, it’s similar to its light-colored counterpart, with a more subtle flavor and less oily texture – but the light-colored kind that we’re used to is definitely superior in taste, in my personal opinion. With the health information about soaked, raw seeds and nuts in mind, I now make sure to buy either pre-soaked nuts/seeds and nut/seed butters, or soak the nuts/seeds myself at home. For tahini, if you go with the raw, organic variety (when possible), you can’t go wrong. The flavor is unbeatable, the nutrition impressive, and the versatility it offers Middle Eastern dishes is convenient and useful!

Stay tuned for many recipes on midEATS that involve tahini, starting with a healthy ‘instant’ snack recipe that I’ll be sharing in the next few days!

8 Comments

  1. Hiba, just wondering, what is the shelf life for tahini, and should it be refrigerated? Also, how can you tell if it’s gone bad? Thanks! -Glenda

    • Hey Glenda! No worries about the name .. it’s basically the same thing 🙂 In terms of homemade tahini shelf-life, I would say about five days to a week in the fridge should be good. If it smells weird or has anything growing on it, then definitely throw it out. It’s good to make in smallish batches in case you can’t go through it in a week.

  2. Heba, Sorry after I wrote my comment I saw that I had misspelled your name! Blame it on Hiba, and the fact that I knew her first :p Sorry again!

  3. Hi,
    I attempted to make homemade tahini last night. I soaked my sesame seeds overnight, lightly roasted them, and then blended them with oil. I’ve only ever had tahini sauce from various Middle Eastern restaurants, so I’ve never really worked with sesame seed paste, but mine smells awful. Any hints on what might have gone wrong?

    • Hi Alaina, thanks for stopping by and for your comment! In what way does the tahini sauce smell bad? Does it smell rancid (like old oil)? In that case the oil you used or the sesame seeds themselves might have been old. If you over-roasted the seeds, it can produce a weird smell sometimes. You can maybe try toasting them on the stove-top very lightly to remove the moisture after soaking instead. What kind of oil did you add? I hope it works better for you next time!

  4. Dear Heba,
    Thanks so much for the response! I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I realized that the olive oil I used smelled weird, too (it’s not past the expiration date, though, so I’m still not sure why). For my second try I used vegetable oil, less oil overall, less time roasting, and a tad bit of water (partially I admit because I was worried about my blender). It smells wonderful and looks perfect! I can’t wait to try your recipes…
    ~ First Time College Cooker

    • Hi Alaina, please don’t be embarrassed! If only you witnessed how many times I’ve screwed up in the kitchen … 🙂 I’m not that surprised that the olive oil smelled weird, because most commercial olive oil has been cut with cheaper vegetable oils. Check out this book on the topic – and if you don’t want to read a whole book, here’s a short article: http://www.foodrenegade.com/your-extravirgin-olive-oil-fake/ I recommend using cold-pressed organic sesame oil if you are able to find it for the tahini. It makes sense to pair sesame oil with sesame seeds, and if cold-pressed and refrigerated, hopefully it won’t be rancid either. Also, for blending, adding water totally works – it’s what I do to make a tahini dressing. Here’s the recipe which involves a little yogurt too if you like. If you don’t want the yogurt, you can totally leave it out. It’s a pretty flexible recipe. Anyway, hope this helps, and good luck!

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Scrumptious Snack: Homemade Halawa and Tahini with Molasses | mideats.com
  2. Raw Zucchini Tahini Dip (Tahina bil Kousa) | mideats.com

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