Middle Eastern

The Ingredient No One Knows What To Do With (Yet)

March 27, 2016

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.)

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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.

Photo by Backyard Diva

"Until very recently," Solomonov writes, "it was hard to find great tehina here in the States, and what was available could be quite bad."

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Top Comment:
“It might be neat used like eye makeup underliner--i.e.a thin layer over a layer of beets in a beet/goat cheese terrine; or a swirl in a sesame babka; or a thin layer over a savory pie crust, below a filling that isn't wet enough to co-mingle with the tahine; or as a thin layer in a savory gratin of root vegetable and cheese(as in something like hardlikearmor's jerusalem artichoke and cheese tart.) Or as a thin layer in a layered terrine of gelatin mousse of fish or vegetable , and in the pool of tahine sauce underneath the plated slice. Can I go home now, please?”
— LE B.
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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.)

Black hummus in the food processor.

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:

Photo by Bobbi Lin

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!

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38 Comments

beejay45 February 2, 2018
Couple of questions: Do you think a mortar and pestle (I have one of the giant Thai ones) would be a satisfactory way of making tahini, black or white? It seems like you could grind it differently and more thoroughly than you could in a food processor (although I've never tried it in my Vitamix).<br /><br />Second: I originally found this product when I was looking for the toasted sesame tahini to use in baba ganoush to up the smoky factor and found this. Do you think it would be good in that application (never mind the lack of smokiness) or would it overpower the eggplant?<br /><br />Thanks for all the info!
 
Maggie February 4, 2018
I use a coffee/spice grinder for small seeds
 
Stilla M. June 21, 2017
Kitzach, or Palestinian black tehina is made with black cumin (nigella sativa) seeds, not black sesame seeds. It has an entirely different taste altogether.
 
Panfusine June 22, 2017
Interesting.. is it processed the same way as one processes black sesame seeds?<br />
 
Stilla M. June 22, 2017
They don't make Tahini with black sesame seeds in the middle east. They only use white or nigella sativa. I think they do process it the same way as sesame tahini though. Here are a few lovely reads about it, along with some insight into how the best tahini is made in Nablus: <br />http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2014/a-taste-of-nablus/<br />This next one was cited in the article above but clearly not read closely to learn that Palestinian black tahini is not made with sesame (it's about qizha): https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/black-tahini-is-the-dark-magic-of-palestine
 
Ginny S. October 23, 2016
Two questions: A) What is the difference between sesame paste and tahini? I thought they were the same. B) I would love, love, love a recipe for halvah that has a texture that resembles a block of (wet) sand and not the taffy like consistency I've found in every recipe thus far. I've tested about 7 (slightly) different recipes and none of them is correct. Also, I'm referring to halvah made from tahini & sugar/honey, not the halvah made with semolina. Thank you!
 
Hala G. August 3, 2016
"Israel" is a Zionist Russian/German/Polish illegal colony that has driven Palestinian's out of their land and they have systematically stolen their food culture. Tahina (an Arabic word irrespective of how the English language spells it) means sesame.
 
creamtea June 22, 2017
Deal with it. We're not leaving.
 
Maggie April 3, 2016
That is the most goth veggie dip ever! I just ate a huge plate of melon and halawa... Tahini rocks.
 
Naomi M. April 3, 2016
I like playing with textures and contrasts - roasted cauliflower with caramelized onions, saffron and sultanas drizzled with black tehini sauce; roasted sprouting broccoli or broccolini drizzled with black tehini sauce and toasted peanuts; honey and black tahini ice cream. a sweet version of black tehini paste would be lovely sandwiched between 2 buttery short-bread cookies with lashings of chocolate and crushed peanuts. Must work on the recipes and test. Please let me know if any of you are interested and I would be delighted to share the more successful ones!
 
Irene S. April 3, 2016
I'm sorry to say but the word "tahini" (tahina, tehini, tehina, etc.. ) regardless of how you spell it (because this is phonetics and not the actual spelling) is not from the Greek language. It's from the Arabic language. The word is derived from the word for "grind", therefore it means "ground"... in that the sesame has been ground into a paste.
 
Ingrid April 3, 2016
Black sesame paste is a very common product in (East) Asia; you often see it in grocery stores in Taiwan. That being said, I always spread stone-ground sesame paste on raisin toast and top it with a fried egg!
 
deanna1001 April 3, 2016
Heidi Swanson has a recipe called Black Sesame Otsu in Super Natural Every Day...it is one of my go to vegan meals. You make a paste using the sesame seeds with sunflower seeds and other things like mirin...serve over soba with fried bits of tofu. Delish.
 
lemons April 3, 2016
And what to do with Soom's chocolate tahini?
 
Catherine L. March 30, 2016
do you have a tehina cookie recipe, Sarah?! I had some in Istanbul and they were so good. Please share. I beg of thee.
 
Ilaine March 26, 2016
I'm confused. The Kevala website says their black tahini is ground, which implies that it is not pressed. Actually, the Soom website says their tehina is ground, which implies that it is not pressed.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. March 26, 2016
I'm not an expert on processing techniques, but to me, grinding and pressing are similar from a linguistic standpoint, implying that the material is put on one surface and then pressure is applied from above. Blending, on the other hand, is different: The material gets whirred around and comes in contact with a blade—more of a chopping motion than a smashing one.
 
Gilush March 26, 2016
I'm Israeli and the beginning of this article made me roll my eyes. "who's no-one?" I wondered out loud and had to let my boyfriend know that Americans don't know what to do with tahina, apparently. "You do /everything/ with it," his reply was - plain truth.<br /><br />Hopes are better tahina will enter American market soon, because the brands I have tried were pretty bad. Then you simply need to mix raw tahina with lemon juice and water (and add chopped parsley and minced garlic if you wish, but can do without) - and have it as everything, sandwich spread, salad sauce, vegetable dip. Everything. Water it down and use it to cook meatballs, I even add it to tomato soup. Or you add some honey to raw tahina, kids love that. I love roasting beets and vitamix'ing them to add some flavor and a brilliant pink to tahini, it's a great crowd-pleaser.
 
Ilaine March 26, 2016
Soom tehina is wonderful. But I have never been to Israel so can't compare.
 
PistachioDoughnut March 24, 2016
Black sesame seeds are often used in the western part of India that I come from Gujarat with a healthy sweet called "Kacharyu" which translates "ground" because its made from ground sesame , jaggery or sweetener, dry coconut, dry fruits, some spices something that is usually available during winters. I really love it and last year I went to India in December and forgot to bring it. My mom reminded me later on. I would compare it with having an energy bar. If you google kacharyu you might find some images to relate to.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. March 24, 2016
That sounds so good! Would love to try a recipe if you have one you like!
 
PistachioDoughnut March 25, 2016
Hi Sarah- Here's the link I just uploaded it and a video. Hope you get to try it.<br />https://food52.com/recipes/44749-kachariyu-energy-bars?preview=true<br />https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTrak8f31tc
 
Jing March 24, 2016
you can buy black sesame paste for much cheaper at a chinese grocery store.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. March 24, 2016
Yep and you can make the paste at home, too! But this isn't paste—it's tahini, so it's made differently (pressing versus blending) and more oil is extracted from the seeds.
 
Oui, C. March 24, 2016
Pretty funny Sarah
 
Valentina |. March 23, 2016
I made some black sesame seeds paste - in my Vitamix - few hours ago, before reading this article. Thanks for the timing :D
 
LE B. March 23, 2016
Hmmmmmmm, "Me thinks this is quite the challenge." I think I'm possibly taking the safer road, but then again, there are not many examples of Americans eating a black dish. So I'm thinking of starting with dishes that are close-to-black, where black would not be as much of a leap...........things like dark chocolate in.......halvah oh yes, you're already trying that. I do feel confident that it would not go over well as a salad dressing component-- like a black veil over bright green salad greens......<br />It might be neat used like eye makeup underliner--i.e.a thin layer over a layer of beets in a beet/goat cheese terrine; or a swirl in a sesame babka; or a thin layer over a savory pie crust, below a filling that isn't wet enough to co-mingle with the tahine; or as a thin layer in a savory gratin of root vegetable and cheese(as in something like hardlikearmor's jerusalem artichoke and cheese tart.) Or as a thin layer in a layered terrine of gelatin mousse of fish or vegetable , and in the pool of tahine sauce underneath the plated slice. Can I go home now, please?
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. March 24, 2016
Love your ideas! A swirl in a sesame babka sounds brilliant.
 
Panfusine March 24, 2016
ooh, those ideas sound spectacular.. (I need to go raid the stock of black sesame that does NOT reside in my pantry for the reasons I've mentioned)
 
Oui, C. March 23, 2016
Educate me on the "second twelve", I'm clueless.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. March 23, 2016
Ah, sorry! "Second twelve" is 12 seconds into the 60 seconds I've allotted you for tahini thinking time. :)
 
Panfusine March 23, 2016
Tehina sounds delicious, I would happily use it up in almost everything regular tahini is used for.<br />Despite being really flavorful, black sesame isn't used that often in Indian cuisine on a regular basis. It has another rather morbid application, i.e used in death and death anniversary related rituals. <br />
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. March 23, 2016
That's very interesting! How do black sesame seeds compare to nigella seeds in Indian cooking?
 
Panfusine March 23, 2016
they're completely unrelated, flavor and otherwise. I've never seen nigella used in South Indian cooking, <br />
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. March 23, 2016
I've seen nigella (kalonji?) on naan and in some Bengali dishes.
 
Panfusine March 24, 2016
yep.. Kalonji is used a lot in the north, not just naan, its used a lot for tempering dishes in the tadka. its part of the Bengali whole spice mix 'Panch phoran' which is a classic hallmark of bengali dishes (the panch or 'five' spices are cumin, fennel, fenugreek, mustard and nigella).