If tahini sounds unfamiliar to you, think again. You've probably tried tahini in hummus! Tahini is a paste made from ground sesame seeds and is used frequently in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, hence its inclusion in hummus. The use of sesame seeds and tahini dates back in these cuisines for thousands of years. Tahini looks like very smooth peanut butter with a slightly more fluid consistency. It has been popularized in the United States much more recently as a an alternative to nut butters.
To make tahini, the sesame seeds are first soaked in water and crushed to separate the outer hull from the seed kernel. The kernels are toasted, giving them a nutty, slightly bitter flavor, then ground to a paste. Tahini can be very oily due to the natural oils and fats in sesame seeds. Tahini paste will often separate in its container. The solids will settle at the bottom and the oil on top. Many manufacturers will recommend storing tahini in the refrigerator to prevent separation and extend the shelf life of the paste.
Tahini-based sauces and dips are common in Middle Eastern cuisine. Often, tahini is thinned with water and seasoning is added to create a basic flavorful sauce to be served with meat or vegetables. Tahini can also be added to dishes, such as hummus, for additional flavor and its smooth texture.
Tahini does provide some nutritional substance when added to sauces and dishes. It's high in copper and manganese. Tahini is also a good source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, however, tahini made from roasted sesame seeds is higher in fat than tahini made from raw sesame seeds. It is also popular in vegetarian and vegan diets for its moderate protein content. Compared with peanut butter, tahini has higher levels of calcium and fiber and lower amounts of sugar. It is also safe to consume for those who have nut allergies. Find tahini in the international foods section in your grocery store or at a natural foods shop.