There are few ingredients that command as much respect in Levantine cuisine as Tahini. At one time reserved exclusively for the upper echelons of the medieval Middle East, this ancient holy food is now a staple ingredient in almost every home in Israel and across the fertile crescent.
But how did a product originating in India and grown in the dusty soils of Ethiopia come to feature so extensively in Levantine cooking? Well part of the reason is that Tahini, or Tahina as its known in the local Arabic, is incredibly versatile.
One reason for this versatility is the natural flavour of the sesame used to make the sauce. Made using a variety of sesame seed known as Humera, Tahini has a rich nutty flavour that comes from the high naturally occurring fat content.
While some may be put off by the golden pool that settles on top of raw tahini, it is precisely this oil that makes it ideal for both sweet and savoury dishes. Many people from outside the middle east may think of Tahini as merely an ingredient in dips like Hummus or Baba Ghanoush but Levantine chefs have found many sweet uses for the sauce as well.
One of the most iconic tahini based desserts found in market stalls, confectioners windows and specialist shops across Israel is Halva. This combination of either a syrup or honey with tahini (and any additional flavourings like nuts, cocoa or dried fruit) was brought to the region by Persian traders and has remained popular ever since.
The slightly bitter nuttiness of the Tahini is offset by the sweetness of the syrup, and once the sugar crystallises the mixture firms up to the texture of fudge or a soft nougat. However, Tahini can just as easily absorb another substance and change texture entirely for more savoury applications.
Tahini can be used as a sauce to accompany falafel, as a bed for roasted Jaffa style cauliflower or even as a condiment in the Iraqi flatbread wrap - Sabich. But before it can be whipped into fluffy peaks the raw tahini needs to be 'opened' first.
Now that may sound like an obvious step, but in this case we are talking about the process of mixing ice water into the raw tahini. Once added, the Tahini will split into a grainy mixture at first, but through the process of stirring, the mixture will recombine into a velvety light sauce - and you will also notice the colour turn a few shades lighter as well.
This process essentially turns the Tahini into a stable emulsion, evenly dispersing the fat and water throughout the mixture. This means that other ingredients (usually lemon juice, salt or even green herbs) can be worked into the sauce and balance out the flavours.
Tahini also provides a rich creamy texture, and healthy fat content to a dish without the aid of dairy products (useful for the Jewish citizens of Israel who are forbidden from eating 'meat and milk' together).
Whether it's used for savoury, sweet or even something in between, tahini offers Israeli chefs an ingredient that can be altered to suit almost any need.