If you are looking at adding just one new ingredient to your cooking repertoire, my vote goes to tahini. As someone who writes about food, ingredients are my gateway to culinary adventures. They are my way to explore the flavours and cultures of our diverse country and the world at large.
I was first curious to cook with tahini when I read a recipe for halva flapjacks (tahini, condensed milk, oats, dried fruit and nuts) by baker and food writer Dan Lepard in his column, How To Bake, in The Guardian in 2010. The fact that I remember this tahini recipe from 13 years ago will tell you how strong some food memories are. Those days, tahini was not easily available in our local supermarkets, even in a metro like Mumbai, so the recipe was noted down to try out later when I got my hands on a bottle.
Made from ground sesame seeds, tahini has deep roots in Middle Eastern cuisine. Its velvety texture and nutty aroma make it a versatile ingredient, capable of elevating dishes to extraordinary heights. Good tahini is the key difference between ordinary and wow hummus, but its potential goes far beyond mere dips and spreads. Its complex flavour blends seamlessly into both savoury and sweet recipes and savoury-sweet recipes like salad dressings.
I got my hands on a large bottle of good-quality tahini when a food blogger friend from Kuwait was kind enough to send it to me through a relative visiting Mumbai. Now that I had a full bottle of the real stuff on my hands, I was eager to try out recipes going the full spectrum from hummus to cookies to desserts. Until then, my hummus either lacked tahini or used mixer-ground sesame seeds that did not give the intense flavour or the silky texture that bottled tahini offers.
Another favourite thing to make with tahini is this quick flavour-rich dip that you can whip up in minutes. Just combine tahini, minced garlic, lemon juice, salt and the required quantity of water in a bowl and you have a dip that goes with any roasted veggies, crudites or falafel, or just drizzle it over a falafel bowl.
Tahini is made in different parts of Turkey and other parts of the Middle East following age-old traditions. Sesame seeds are soaked in water overnight. The seeds are crushed to separate the outer layer (bran) from the kernel. This gives a silky-smooth tahini. Soaking the crushed seeds in salted water causes the bran to sink. The floating seed kernels can be skimmed and collected to be roasted over hot stones. The toasted seeds are ground in an old-fashioned mill until an oily paste i.e. tahini is obtained.
My go to YouTube channel for Turkish food, Refika’s Kitchen by chef Refika, has a recipe for homemade tahini, in which she skips the soaking process. White sesame seeds are toasted in a hot pan until golden brown. The browner you toast the seeds, the tahini ends up more bitter to taste. The toasted seeds are transferred to a blender with a powerful motor and after initial grinding for a minute, a generous quantity of neutral oil (Refika recommends hazelnut, grapeseed or sunflower oil or any other seed oil) is added to the blender and the mixture is blended until a silky texture is obtained. A total blending of three to three-and-a-half minutes is required to make tahini from sesame seeds. This prepared tahini is then transferred to a glass jar.
Whether you buy readymade tahini or are going the DIY route, here are some tahini recipes that are worth trying when you are feeling creative in the kitchen—tahini and chocolate-chip ice cream, tahini caramel popcorn, tahini and miso-glazed tofu, salted tahini stuffed dates and tahini basil pesto, all of which do justice in exploiting the complex flavour of this magical condiment.
Leafy salad with tahini dressing
(This dressing recipe is inspired from Refika’s kitchen YouTube channel.)
2 cups leafy greens
(mix of lettuce varieties and rocket)
1 medium cucumber, peeled and sliced
1 medium tomato, deseeded and cubed
For the dressing
1 tbsp tahini
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp Greek yogurt
Half tsp salt
Half tsp black pepper powder
Wash and dry the greens well. Chop the lettuce into bite-sized pieces. In a bowl, combine the greens along with the chopped cucumber and tomato.
Whisk all the ingredients for the dressing in a jug until thick and creamy or run it briefly in a small mixer. Pour the dressing over the salad ingredients and serve immediately.
Notes: You can also add some cooked chickpeas to this salad to make it heartier.
This same dressing can also be used on roasted carrots, bell peppers or served with potato wedges or bread.
Tahini Sourdough Toast
1 medium tomato, sliced
2 slices of sourdough bread
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 eggs + butter/oil to fry eggs
A few rocket leaves (optional)
1 tsp mixed seeds
For the spread
2 tbsp tahini
1 tsp hot sauce
2 tsp honey
1 tsp mustard sauce
A pinch of salt
1 clove garlic, finely grated
Slice the tomato and place in a single layer on a dish. Sprinkle salt and keep aside. Drain off excess juices after 5 minutes.
Toast the bread slices until crisp and golden. Rub them with garlic cloves while still hot.
Fry the eggs in the sunny side up style. Sprinkle a pinch of salt on the eggs and keep aside.
In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients for the spread and spread it over the two slices of toasted bread.
Arrange tomato slices on the toasts followed by the fried egg and rocket leaves. Sprinkle some mixed seeds over the toasts and serve immediately.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). She posts @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.