I NEVER EXACTLY thought of tahini as a secret ingredient, but I did consider it a silent partner. In my childhood, we talked about hummus as a chickpea dish and baba ghanouj as an eggplant dip; we knew my grandfather’s favorite crumbly candy only as halva (tahini and sugar, basically).
Tahini, a paste made from ground sesame seeds, is the backbone of those classic dishes from the Middle East, where tahini is a kitchen staple. While it hasn’t reached that status in the United States, in the past few years, it’s at least achieved the level of familiarity that includes a Trader Joe’s house brand; a sense that it can be listed in recipes without an asterisk explaining where to find it; and appearances on restaurant menus that have nothing to do with so-called “hippie food,” which was how many people classified tahini in the 1970s. (Shout-out here to the practically historic lemon-tahini dressing at Seattle’s Sunlight Café).
The nutty, faintly bitter paste’s presence in the United States has expanded along with the general popularity of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean ingredients, buoyed as Americans have gained access to better-quality tahini (it really does make a difference), and as tastemakers seed (no pun intended) new recipes.
Trendsetter Yotam Ottolenghi called tahini one of his 10 essential ingredients in 2017, but I’ve been more influenced by cookbook author and recipe developer Adeena Sussman, who wrote a slim “Short Stack” cookbook on tahini in 2016. She explained how tahini could serve as a supporting actor or as a star, slipping into character and “understanding the power dynamics of every recipe it graces.”
With that book and with Sussman’s newest release, “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen” (Avery, $35), I delighted in the endlessly unexpected roles tahini could play in dishes from granola to caramel to glazed carrots. Like Sussman, I’d first come to appreciate tahini as a child spending time in Israel. She now lives full-time in Tel Aviv, and I touched base with her to see whether she was as surprised as I was to see the once-mysterious discovery go mainstream.
“I think as Americans’ palates become more sophisticated, anything goes. I think we’re open to all kinds of taste experiences,” she writes in an email. “Seeing your favorite ‘influencer’ throw tahini in a smoothie or make Mike Solomonov’s killer hummus also changes hearts and minds. Also, the fact that tahini is a superfood (albeit a high-calorie one), vegan, protein-packed — it all helps. I still don’t think you see Americans drizzling raw tahini paste on things with abandon, but it may yet happen.”
Yes, by the way: She does the drizzling thing (“over vegetables, or loosened with a bit of water and lemon”).
Sussman sees tahini quality improving in the United States as consumers become more savvy about what good tahini should look and taste like. Her general advice on that: “No separation in the jar; a delicious, roasted flavor; and, above all, a fresh sesame profile without any rancidity or oily mouthfeel.”
While we can’t get tahini directly from our local souk, she recommends U.S. customers try Soom tahini. It’s the same brand used in Solomonov’s lauded Philadelphia restaurant, Zahav, and I’ve been buying it lately at Chefshop (1425 Elliott Ave. W.). It’s also available online (soomfoods.com).
I’ve noticed, as good tahini becomes a staple in my own kitchen, that I’ve become more inclined to reach for it as a basic building block in meals rather than as a specialty. I wondered whether Sussman’s tahini philosophy has changed much since her first epiphanies, and when she thinks herself to add it to a recipe.
“Tahini has sort of become my spirit food; I’m inexorably linked to it in the best possible way! I think the ingredient leads me, as opposed to the other way around,” she says. “Having a technical food background does help me understand its potential and limitations, but it always manages to surprise me with its versatility.”
These days I find myself making Sussman’s Chewy Tahini Blondies as a go-to dessert that’s original and delightful and yet slightly reminiscent of my childhood. There’s no secret about the main ingredient, and here it’s definitely a star.
Chewy Tahini Blondies
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled, or ½ cup olive oil or vegetable oil, plus more for greasing pan
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. ground cardamom (or more to taste, if you really like this flavor)
½ tsp. fine sea salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. black sesame seeds, lightly toasted
2 Tbsp. lightly toasted white sesame seeds
1¼ cups lightly packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
½ cup tahini paste
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan. Line the pan with 2 crisscrossing strips of parchment paper, buttering between each layer and leaving a 2-inch overhang on all sides. Butter top and sides of parchment.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cardamom, salt, pepper, and black and white sesame seeds.
3. In another medium bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, ½ cup melted butter, eggs and vanilla extract until smooth. Fold the dry ingredients into wet ingredients until just incorporated, then fold in tahini until smooth.
4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake until golden on the outside and the center doesn’t jiggle but is still soft, 25 to 30 minutes. (Writer’s note: When in doubt, I err on the side of baking it longer.) Remove from oven, cool in pan and cut into 16 equal squares.