Spend a minute thinking about tahini—if you can.
You may reach second twelve and realize you're out of thoughts that aren't questions: What's the difference between tahini and tahina and tehina? What are its essential ingredients? Once you get that far (sesame seeds), think about those, too: How do sesame seeds grow? What's the difference between the white variety and the black? And if traditional tahini is made of white sesame seeds, can you do the same with the black kind?
You can. It's called black tahini, and it's a relatively new addition to the U.S. marketplace. So new that, according to the manufacturer Kevala, there's no "regular use" for this "exotic product" yet. (An article on Vice Munchies notes that qizha, a black tahini commonly used in Palestinian sweets but largely unavailable here, is a little less out of the ordinary.)
But more on that later. Before we get to black tahini, we need to tackle tahini itself, something which, according to Michael Solomonov—co-owner of the restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia and co-author of a book by the same name—the country of Israel could not function without. He uses the word "tehina,"in place of the typical and more recognizable "tahini" (the Greek spelling), to refer to "pure sesame paste, made from toasting and grinding raw sesame seeds."
More: What to cook from Zahav, whether you want to make one recipe or fifty.
Solomonov classifies the Israeli love for tehina as unconditional and irrational, and in Phyllis Grant's Piglet judgment (you must remember it: she tested twenty recipes from each book), she mentions being swept away, too: "I got so caught up in your magic," she addresses Solomonov, "that I overnighted two jars of Soom, your favorite tehina, from Amazon. I wanted to make amba tehina, harissa tehina, black garlic tehina." (Between Zahav and two of Solomonov's other restaurant's, they go through 1400 pounds of Soom a month.)
Amy Zitelman, one of the three women behind the aforementioned Soom, says that Americans "have a lot to learn about sesame." In other parts of the world, like East Asia (China and Japan are the world's number 1 and number 2 sesame seed importers, and it's a $2.81 billion industry), they've been using the seed for thousands of years and "it's much better understood"—not confined, much of the time, to the tops of hamburger buns. (According to Mental Floss, McDonald’s buys approximately 75% of Mexico's sesame crop for that reason.)
Most of us don't even know how sesame seeds grow (or that, besides white, there are black, golden, red, and brown sesame seeds—other colors, too). But in western Ethiopia, where Soom sources its raw material, the plant grows like wheat, and the harvest employs thousands of people, who cut the stalks by hand, let the pods dry, and then shake the sesame seeds out.
"Until very recently," Solomonov writes, "it was hard to find great tehina here in the States, and what was available could be quite bad."
But what about the option of making it at home, yourself? If tehina is what Solomonov defines it as—"pure sesame paste"—why can't you make it from one ingredient in a food processor, simple as that?
You can make it—we didn't completely lie back in 2012, when we told you how easy it was—but it won't be nearly as silky-smooth or emulsified as store-bought versions.
What differentiates commercial tahini (at the least the high-quality kind, made from only one ingredient) from the sesame paste you can hack at home is the machinery used and the type of seed it's made from.
Soom outsources its manufacturing to Israel, where the seeds are pressed rather than blended. It's a process that harks back to thousand-year-old methods, when sesame seeds were pressed between two stones.
At Kevala, the seeds are cleansed through three different machines (steam, air, debris sorter-outer), then toasted at a precise temperature and time to ensure even roasting (Solomonov, too, warns against pale and scorched seeds), before finally undergoing a milling process to extract the oil. "It's very difficult to make tahini in a blender or food processor," said Operations Manager Gerardo Rodriguez, "because you need more power and more time—much more than for peanuts or almonds—to extract the oil."
So the seeds in good commercial tahini have been cleaned, toasted, and processed in a manner beyond your ability in a home kitchen—and their very chemical make-up is probably different, too: Soom starts with Humera sesame seeds from western Ethiopia, which have a nutty flavor profile and an ideal "ratio of oil to meat, so that the product stays nicely blended and homogenized."
So back to Kevala's Black Tahini, made of 100% organic unhulled black sesame seeds. Black sesame seeds, popular in Japanese food, are a more pungent, more bitter cousin to white sesame seeds, and they're always sold with their hulls—that's the part that's black. (If you remove the hull to reveal the white inners, part of that sharp intensity is reduced, but sesame experts, Rodriguez from Kevala said, will still detect the difference.)
I've used homemade black sesame paste in baking and ice cream-making before, but this seemed like a different entity: smooth, creamy-sludgy, black as tar, and unlike anything that has ever come out of my blender, food processor, or spice grinder.
But what to do with it? On its own, the black tahini was just as Rodriguez described it: "way stronger and more intense," with an extremely toasty, just-shy-of-burnt taste. (Another challenge of attempting black tahini at home: roasting the already-black seeds without burning them.)
Many of Kevala's customers are still experimenting with black tahini—as a garnish, in salad dressings and smoothies, as a thickener in soups, and as food coloring (Kevala sells black tahini to organic companies looking for a natural food dye). Zitelman from Soom suggested it'd be great over a buttery fish, like black cod.
I decided to start with something naked in its simplicity: the much-talked-about, recently-declared-Genius hummus from Zahav. It starts with a prepared tehina sauce—made from blending tehina with lemon, juice, garlic, and ice water—and that's where I used black tahini to replace the beige.
Compare the looks of the black hummus and classic hummus below:
In taste, the black hummus has a deeper, richer, roast-ier flavor: more savory, more bitter, and more sesame-forward; Kenzi described it as hummus that had been wood-fired. Its texture was a bit tackier than the traditional—a difference that might be eliminated by incorporating more ice water into the prepared tehina mixture.
I have no doubt that I'll use my jar of black tahini ($13.99—not a drop-of-the-hat purchase) by the week's end: Tehina cookies are my next project, then halva, then black sesame noodles.
Black tahini may be unfamiliar in the U.S. for now—but with a flavor like this, it won't stay that way for long.
How would you use it? Tell us in the comments below!