I know what you’re thinking. You know all about tahini. It’s brown and bitter and usually consists of layer of oil sitting on top of a dry, concrete-like paste. Every now and then you attempt to stir it up to scoop into the hummus you’re bringing to the family gathering at your vegetarian aunt’s house. Other than that, it just sits in the fridge, behind the quart of expired buttermilk and that 32 ounce jar of capers from Costco you bought a couple years ago (you’re almost a quarter of the way through it—nice work!).
For a long time, bitter, separated tahini was all most of us could hope for here in the US, but that’s beginning to change thanks to recent plugs from chefs like Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s Zahav restaurant and Yotam Ottolenghi, who runs the Ottolenghi chain of retaurants in London. Both are Israeli born and have publicly praised the versatility of tahini. Solomonov has touted Philadelphia-based Soom Brand which supplies the paste for Zahav, as well as Beauty’s Bagel’s in Oakland, Shaya in New Orleans, and Superiority Burger, Del Posto, and Mission Chinese in New York City. Founded by the Zitelman sisters as a producer of tahini and tahini-based dips and hummus in 2013, Soom decided to drop the dips in October 2015 and focus solely on providing great tahini to both restaurants and consumers alike. New York also has its own artisanal tahini producers like Brooklyn Sesame, which began handmaking tahini and halvah in 2013. This past January also saw the opening of New York’s Seed + Mill, a shop in the Chelsea Market that also focuses exclusively on sesame based products.
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Not surprisingly, these high-end tahinis can be a bit pricey: sometimes between double and triple the cost of supermarket brands like Joyva, with its recognizable orange-and-brown can. Without shipping costs, Brooklyn Sesame sells for $1.02 per ounce, Soom for $0.63, and Seed + Mill for about $1.33, compared to Jovya at a mere $0.42 per ounce. So what makes the higher price tag worth it? “Our tahini is made from the finest quality Ethiopian white humera sesame seeds,” says Monica Molenaar, a partner at Seed + Mill, “Most of the tahini you can buy in the US is made from seeds that come from Mexico or India and are not as coveted.” Soom also uses Humera seeds, and in his Guardian column, Ottolenghi suggests they are the best in the world because of “their richness of flavour.” And while sesame seeds will always have a somewhat bitter taste, the excessive bitterness of supermarket tahini can be due to poorly roasted or over-roasted seeds. A more careful, gentler roasting process, like those of small-batch tahini producers, can lessen the harshness and smooth out the flavor.