I first encountered tahini as a child, when I was hopelessly addicted to falafel and shawarma; I would insist my wraps and pittas be drenched in the stuff. In later years I’d come to work with it professionally during my time at Ottolenghi, which is where I gained a new appreciation of it. These days, I’m rarely more than 10 metres away from a jar.
Made from toasted, ground, hulled sesame seeds, it comes in the form of a thick, oily, creamy paste, with a deep, rich nuttiness that makes it incredibly moreish. It’s wonderfully versatile. You can eat it for breakfast, as a way of adding flavour to Greek yoghurt and granola, or simply smothered on toast, much like peanut butter (you can drizzle on a little honey too, for added sweetness). It’s also increasingly used in desserts as a base for cakes, cookies, brownies and ice cream; it adds extra depth and nuttiness to sweets. But it’s as a condiment for grilled meat, fish and vegetables that it really comes into its own, and I seldom throw a barbecue without placing a bowl of tahina sauce in the middle of the table for my guests to help themselves to.
My favourite type of tahini is Ethiopian, but it’s difficult to source and can be very expensive. So, when in the shops, try to find Middle Eastern varieties (Palestinian, Lebanese or Israeli), which I believe are superior to Greek or Cypriot versions.
1 // Sauce
Whisk equal parts tahini and iced water together, with the optional addition of lemon juice, garlic and seasoning. This becomes tahina sauce, often used on kebabs and falafel, but which goes with just about any grilled meat or fish.
2 // Dip
You can serve tahina sauce by itself as a dip for freshly grilled pitta bread. Add a little za’atar and olive oil over the top, and try whisking some harissa through it for added spice, or fold in blended, roasted pumpkin to give it even more depth.
3 // Marinade
Combine tahini, lemon zest and juice, ground cumin, garlic, smoked paprika and olive oil. Marinate chicken thighs or wings for 2-4 hrs, and cook through on a barbecue. Serve with tahina sauce (obviously).
4 // Dressing
Use a blender to emulsify tahina sauce with maple syrup to produce a sweet, salty dressing that works well with crunchy green beans, mange tout, beansprouts, and grilled asparagus, tossed with fresh herbs.
5 // Baking
Tahini works just as well for sweet as it does for savoury. Try beating it into chocolate-chip cookie dough, or a sponge cake batter, perhaps with the addition of some perfumed orange blossom flowers.
Check out Josh’s recipe for tahini-drizzled cauliflower shawarma here.
Josh Katz is chef-owner of Berber & Q.