Tahini and sunflower seeds Tahini and sunflower seeds Tahini and sesame seeds (Photo: Matka_Wariatka/Shutterstock)

What is tahini?

This sesame spread plays a major role in many diets around the world.

Imagine peanut butter – the real stuff you can get in natural-food stores that let you grind it up yourself – smooth and creamy or blended with just a little bit of chunk in it, and then replace the peanuts with sesames. That is tahini. The same process by which the peanut turns into peanut butter, by extracting the oils within and mashing to a paste, is what turns sesame seeds into tahini. 

The process of getting the seed to its mashable state is more difficult than simply de-shelling it, like with a peanut, but not by much. Sesame seeds are first soaked in water for roughly 24 hours, then crushed to separate the bran (the hard outer layer) from the kernels. The bran and kernels are then placed in salt water, where they fully separate – the bran sinks and the kernel floats. The kernels are skimmed off the surface of the water, toasted, then ground. An emollient such as olive oil is usually added to make the tahini creamier. Two types are produced: light, which has a wheat color and a creamy, softer texture, and dark, which has a tan color and is richer in texture and flavor. It's also possible to find unhulled tahini, where the bran is not removed. This tahini is considered to be more nutrient-rich but also much more bitter. 

Tahini is one of those superfoods that is both incredibly versatile and nutritious – it's a good source of calcium, iron and dietary fiber. In North Africa, Greece, Israel and the surrounding region, where tahini is an essential part of the diet, it is eaten on its own, used as a garnish and condiment, added to foods such as hummus and baba ghanoush, and used to make desserts such as halva, a crumbly treat made of nut butter and sugar, and cookies.

Tahini is incredibly versatile. Here it's served on French toast and covered in honey.Tahini is incredibly versatile. Here it's served on French toast and covered in honey. (Photo: The Integer Club/Flickr)

Sesame is native to sub-saharan Africa and India, where it is still cultivated in large quantities today. It's also thought to be the oldest oilseed crop known to man, domesticated well over 5,000 years ago, perseverant because of its ability to withstand drought. 

The flavor of tahini tends to vary by region, based on the topography and climate where the sesame is grown, much like wines are influenced by the origin of their grapes. "Conditions for sesame require a lot of sun and a lot of rain, and depending on the altitude, like any agriculture product, there's different varietals depending where you grow it," Shelby Zitelman told From The Grapevine. Zitelman owns the Philadelphia-based Soom Foods along with her two sisters, Jackie and Amy. The company specializes in a proprietary tahini spread that is very much like peanut butter. Their latest product is a chocolate spread, similar in taste to Nutella.

So, what's the secret to good tahini? "It's the ratio of the weight or meat of the seed to the oil that comes out when pressed, the flavor of that seed, the consistency, how smooth it is, or how chalky it is," said Shelby. 

The smoother and nuttier the flavor, the better. Though, of course, it's all a matter of personal taste.

For more on creative ways people are using tahini, see our most recent article on Soom's increasingly popular tahini products

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