Tahini is the thick spread that results from grinding hulled and lightly roasted sesame seeds, and it’s everywhere these days, from hearty overstuffed falafel sandwiches to dainty modern salads. But for an ingredient so ubiquitous, it remains shrouded in mystery to many fans.
What is tahini, exactly?
Where does it come from?
Here’s the backstory on this key Mediterranean staple.
- The basis of tahini, the sesame seed, has been cultivated in Egypt since at least 2 AD.
- Sesame seeds grow in the pods of a flowering plant, which split open and pop when ripe, revealing the seeds within.
- In Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the phrase “open sesame!” magically opens a sealed cave, likely inspired by a ripened sesame pod.
- Tahini was originally a byproduct of sesame oil production during medieval times, but became a treasured staple in its own right.
- It’s not just a Middle Eastern ingredient. Tahini appears in recipes from as far as China, Vietnam, and India.
- Tahini beats out peanut butter in the calcium department, with nine times as much of the bone-strengthening nutrient.
- When tahini paste is made from unhulled roasted seeds, it’s darker, more bitter, and called sesame butter.
- It’s the basis for halvah, a dense, sesame-spiked confection with Middle Eastern roots going back centuries.
- Because of tahini’s high oil content, it should be refrigerated to keep fresh.
- In most Middle Eastern cultures, the spread is called tahina, from the Arabic tahn, meaning “ground.” These days, most Western countries use the Greek spelling, tahini.