Like any regional cuisine, the Middle East has a distinct flavor profile, cultivated by using a handful of ingredients over and over. One of these ingredients is tahini. To many non-Arabs, tahini is a slightly exotic ingredient, one that you have to hunt for in the grocery store. Thankfully, you will usually find it these days, sometimes in the natural foods section, sometimes by the peanut butter.
Tahini is a paste made from sesame seeds, similar to other nut butters. It has a nutty, creamy flavor, and like other natural nut and seed butters, the oils separate and so it should be stirred before used.
Sesame seeds are considered the oldest oilseed crop, as they have been cultivated for over 5000 years. Ancient Egyptians and Romans ground their sesame seeds into a paste, mixed it with honey and created halwa, a treat we still eat across the Middle East today. Ancient Egyptian women ate this for beauty, Romans ate it for strength and vitality.
Similar to other nut and seed butters, tahini is a source of protein and fat. But these little seeds are heavy lifters when it comes to supporting our health. They contain:
- Amino acids tryptophan and methionine - not found in vegetables - makes a complete protein when combined with legumes. That is why hummus is such a filling and nutritious food, as it combines tahini and chickpeas.
- Vitamin Bs- particularly folate, which supports healthy fetal development, and thiamine, which supports our nervous system.
- Minerals - Ever heard of a seed that contains calcium? Sesame does. Two tablespoons of tahini has as much as half a cup of milk. It also is a good source of magnesium (14 % of daily recommended allowance in one tablespoon), which is wonderful as we learn more and more about magnesium deficiencies. Tahini contains phosphorus, which helps remove waste from our kidneys, iron, copper, manganese and zinc. Tahini packs them in!
Sesame seeds, however, are also high in anti-nutrient phytic acid, so proper preparation is important. Ground or pasted sesame seeds - tahini - makes for better nutritional absorption than unground sesame seeds. Tahini is also rich in fatty acids, but it much higher in Omega-6 than in Omega-3. Sally Fallon, of Nourishing Traditions, suggests that adding a small amount of flax seed oil to tahini will correct this imbalance.
A word on flavor balance: tahini has a heavy, creamy flavor, so in Palestinian dishes it is balanced out with the lighter, sour flavor of lemon juice. Think of the flavors of hummus or baba ghanoush and you will can see how delightful this combination is.
If you would like to try cooking with tahini, take a peak at these recipes:
Lamb Kefta with Tahini Sauce
Basic Tahini-Lemon Sauce, with Fish