Rediscovering Palestinian Cuisine

Ode to Tahina, the ultimate nut butter

Ode to Tahina, the ultimate nut butter

Oh, tahina, the raw paste of the toasted, hulled and ground sesame seed (simsim, in Arabic). You are slathered on kifta like an Arabic ketchup, whisked into a sauce for falafel and shawarma or dressings for salads, cooked with stuffed vegetables, make hummus hummus , and are transformed into delectable sweets such as halawa (ya’ll know this as halva). We even grease our baking dishes for harisseh with tahina. In every Palestinian and Middle Eastern kitchen, it is a pantry staple. Tahina, meaning “to grind” is commonly transliterated and mispronounced as “tahini.” I’m not going to bore you (too much) today with a primer on language. Let’s just agree that it’s *actually* pronounced “tahina” and never speak of this again.

If we’re talking health benefits, tahina has many: it’s high in unsaturated fat, full of minerals, calcium, vitamin E and all the Bs, and has a higher protein content than most nuts. It’s also really tasty, which by my standards means it’s a perfect food.

While the origins of this seed lie in sub-Saharan Africa, with some of the best seeds in the world coming from Ethiopia, it was likely first domesticated in India (Zohary & Hopf, 2000) and subsequently cultivated four thousand years ago in Mesopotamia–making the sesame seed distinctly Middle Eastern and a historic ingredient in Arab cuisine. Tahina, which is the nut butter or paste form made its way to Iran, Turkey, Greece, Armenia, and was adopted by modern Israeli cuisine.

But not all tahina is created equal, and the poorer the quality, the more bitterness you will taste. A good tahina will not have too much separation between the oil and paste (sorry, but Trader Joe’s tahina fails this test). It can be stored without refrigeration until opening, though truth be told, I never refrigerate mine and it lasts for months just perfectly.

Nabulsi tahina is the finest in the region, although sadly does not seem to be available online. The city of Nablus also makes a black tahina that I’ve yet to try, which apparently is more commonly an ingredient for desserts. I’m working on getting Akram to smuggle some Nabulsi tahina, but until then we’ll discuss what’s available in the United States: Whole Foods actually sells a very respectable organic tahina that is smooth, rich, and balanced with just a hint of bitterness. Al Arz Tahina, made since 1992 by a Christian Palestinian family in Nazareth, is what chef Yotam Ottolenghi reportedly prefers. However, my go-to tends to be Al Kanater from Lebanon, because it’s also wonderfully balanced tahina, less expensive, and easily found at most Indian, Persian, or Armenian markets. Around Boston, go to the usual suspects of Arax and Sevan in Watertown, Madras Masala in Brookline, and in Cambridge, Al Hoda Market or Bombay Market.
**I’ve been told that Beirut Tahina is also an excellent brand. If anyone has tried it, please comment below!**

Once you’ve found a good quality tahina, try this incredible date-tahina cake from pastry chef Nadine Kopty as your entree into tahina laced sweets.

 

Halawa: sesame paste candy with pistachios



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