The first cooking class I gave on American soil was dedicated to tahini. I felt that this wonderful Middle Eastern staple was largely misunderstood in Western cooking - relegated to the baba ghanoush and hummus department of most people’s minds and certainly not considered something you’d need at home on a regular basis. "Don't bother, just use peanut butter instead" is a typical response to a queries concerning tahini on the web.
So for my debut cooking class, I decided to set the record straight with no less than 10 tahini dishes ranging from Asian tahini vinaigrette to orange and tahini cookies. "Interesting… we’ve never done anything quite like this", the slightly suspicious but intrigued sounding event coordinator at the JCC of Greater Washington said. Nevertheless, she decided to give tahini a chance.
With tahini it is all about the quality of the raw material. To make sure I had the right stuff, I arranged for a couple of jars to be winged in from my favorite producer in Israel. Sure enough, they arrived at the very last moment, making everybody sick with worry. "How are they different from the ones we bought for you? " asked one of my hosts. As soon as the fateful tahini arrived from the holy land I offered up one of the humble looking plastic containers, encouraging her to taste it straight from the jar. Gingerly she dipped the spoon into the grayish paste and took a single tentative lick. She was converted then and there. "It is a little bit like peanut butter, but sooo much better!"
This, by the way, is how you can tell if tahini is really good – by tasting it raw and looking for that delicate nutty flavor, without almost any trace of bitterness. From my experience the tahini made in Israel (invariably in Arab towns and villages) is the best – far better than the ones imported from Lebanon or Jordan. My favorite local brands are El Arz (marketed in the States as Roland) and Yona. Prince, also available in North America, is quite nice too.
The tahini demo went really well, and everybody raved about the food. Here are some of the highlights, dedicated with thanks and fond regards to Jody, Randy and Cindy of Greater Washington JCC in Rockville, Maryland.