Tahina, the thick, brownish-gray paste of ground sesame seeds, is one of the latest foods to turn “gourmet” – at least in Israel. If supermarkets once sold only one brand of tahina, today it comes in squeeze bottles and glass jars with fancy labels; brands with Arabic on their labels proclaiming their “authenticity” vie with the all-Hebrew labels of the standard brand. (As far as I know, however, Melo Hatene is the only place to actually offer tahina tasting — the ultimate sign of a gourmet food.)
Once tahina was mostly found thinned to a watery sauce in the corner falafel stand or served in a neat glop in the center of a plate of hummus. At best, you could be served green tahina – a thick concoction mixed with chopped parsley – for dipping pita. Nowadays, the additions can run to chopped tomatoes, different herbs, and even (what else?) pesto.
Some hints for mixing the perfect tahina:
Buy the best raw tahina available. If you can find organic tahina, so much the better. Whole tahina, on the other hand, is a matter of taste – some find it to have bitter aftertaste.
Mix equal amounts of water and tahina. If you have time, use boiling water and let the mixture cool; your tahina will be thicker and creamier, and mix more easily.
Stir vigorously, and keep going until the tahina is completely smooth.
Add garlic, salt and lemon juice to taste. Go slow, taste, and add more if needed. (Remember, the garlic flavor can get stronger as it sits.) For extra-smooth tahina, try chopping the garlic on a cutting board and then mashing it with the salt using the end of your knife.
Optional: Add a generous amount of parsley or any other minced herbs, tomatoes or green onions. If you’re using tomatoes, add less water initially.
For baba ghanoush, simply add the already-mixed tahina to eggplant that has been roasted or charred on an open flame, cooled, drained, peeled and chopped (about 1/3 tahina to 2/3 eggplant, more or less according to taste).
Try topping roasted or steamed vegetables with tahina and heating them in the oven until just warmed through. This is a vegetarian version of a dish (usually made with lamb) called sinaya.