Tahini is all over Tel Aviv, from the raw to the cooked

Tahini is all over Tel Aviv, from the raw to the cooked

The sesame sauce is featured throughout Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Market, in fizzy cocktails and frothy sauces

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Benny Briga concocts another carbonated elixir at Cafe Levinsky in the Levinsky Market, this one with tahini, for a slightly sweet, milky and satisfying drink (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Benny Briga concocts another carbonated elixir at Cafe Levinsky in the Levinsky Market, this one with tahini, for a slightly sweet, milky and satisfying drink (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Tahini, that thick sesame paste, generally thinned with lemon juice and water and flavored with crushed garlic, salt, and sometimes a sprinkle of chopped parsley, is everywhere.

It’s drizzled on salads, scrambled eggs, and roasted eggplant. It’s mixed into hummus, forms the basis of many a sauce, and is the core — when raw — of that sweet, sticky treat — halva.

Beyond buying your own jar and trying it out at home, there’s a few stops to be made for exploring this nutty flavored spread that’s packed with protein.

1) Start with the now famous Levinsky spice Market in Tel Aviv, where a triumvirate of shops and restaurants specialize in the sesame paste.

Melachet HaTochen is a small tahini factory owned by Sarit Orenstein and Amit Cohen, who are dedicated to making the purest form of tahini possible. The scent of toasted sesame permeates this small space, a heady, strong smell of sesame oil undiluted by anything else.

The massive basalt wheels that crush and grind sesame at Melechat HaTochen. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Cohen, who learned how to make this pure form of tahini from an elder Palestinian expert from the north, imported basalt wheels to crush and grind their sesame, grown in Ethiopia. The sesame seeds are first washed numerous times and then dried for 30 hours at 38 degrees. Then the sesame is crushed and ground until it is a thick, creamy, taupe-colored paste, more similar in shade and taste to peanut butter than the whiter tahini familiar from most industrially produced brands of tahini.

Sarit Orenstein loves to eat it straight from a teaspoon, or mix it with just about anything, from tuna and eggs, to cheese and avocado.

“It’s the perfect food,” she said.

A jar of Melachet HaTochen tahini costs NIS 30 for 350 grams. 5 HaShuk Street, Levinsky Market, Tel Aviv.

A look down into the cherry-and-tahini goodness of Benny Briga’s latest carbonated drink. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

2) Just down the block is Café Levinsky, the magical stall owned by Benny Briga who plies customers with all forms of fresh, carbonated drinks made from his fruit syrups and elixirs, and stirred with sprigs of fresh rosemary, geranium, and twigs of other kinds.

This summer, he’s playing with tahini, using a small amount of it as the basis of a sweet, milky, spiked drink, this one laden with fresh cherries or sliced nectarine, a dollop of homemade cherry liquor, and a dash of cloves. It is a welcome change from the late afternoon iced coffee, with a heftiness that refreshes, but none of the caffeine that can set off a tailspin of activity. Café Levinsky, 41 Levinsky, Levinsky Market.

3) Stop in for dinner (or lunch) at HaTahinia, a new restaurant that’s almost all about tahini. This casual, bar-seating only space was opened by chef Yonatan Berrebi, who drew on his extensive experience cooking with tahini while working as the private chef on a yacht owned by Israeli tycoon  Eyal Ofer, a great lover of the sesame stuff.

A crucial night in Berrebi’s tahini education included a formal dinner at the palace of Albert II, Prince of Monaco, where he prepared the starter that included a highly frothed version of tahini, impressing the prince’s personal chef. They spent the rest of the night discussing tahini possibilities, and Berrebi’s restaurant idea was created.

Yonatan Berrebi of HaTahinia, the newest tahini restaurant on the block, inspired by Berrebi’s time spent cooking for a client who loved the sesame stuff. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The concept at HaTahinia is that the sesame spread plays a role in most, but not all, of the dishes that are prepared in tapas size. There are tahinis mixed with chestnuts, Swiss chard, or yellow lentils, as well as the classic babaganoush eggplant tahini. There’s also fish encrusted in tahini, a vegan eggplant tartar with a tahini and spicy paste sauce, and sweet potato steaks drizzled with a wasabi and tahini sauce.

But no matter how much you love tahini, you can still “go on tahini overload,” said Berrebi, which is why some dishes don’t include any at all.

HaTahinia is also kosher (Israeli rabbinate) and not all that pricey, given the smaller, tapas style dishes. 33 Levinsky Street, Levinsky Market, Tel Aviv.

Eitan and Yomi Levi of the Yom Tov Delicatessen in the Levinsky Spice Market in Tel Aviv (photo credit: David Katz)
Eitan and Yomi Levi of the Yom Tov Delicatessen in the Levinsky Spice Market in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: David Katz)

4) Need somthing sweet? Stop in at the famed Yom Tov’s delicatessan, named for its first proprietor, Yom Tov Levy, and now run by his grandsons, Yomi and Eitan.

Besides the mounds of multi-hued olives, containers of pickled hibiscus flowers, and tiny red peppers stuffed with cheese, are shelves lined with every kind of imported good, including loaves of dry sesame halva from Turkey studded with walnuts, pistachios, or almonds. It’s a far different halva than what you’ll taste at Melech HaHalva or one of the other halva purveyors in the Carmel Market or Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda, with a dryer, more dense flavor that packs a punch similar to a square of unadulterated, 85% dark chocolate.

Yom Tov Deli, 43 Levinsky Street, Levinsky Market, Tel Aviv.

Fresh sesame seeds. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

5) Got a tub of tahini in the house? Make some tahini granola to sprinkle on top of your yogurt, bringing a punch of protein to your breakfast. Adeena Sussman, a food writer and chef in Tel Aviv, included this recipe in her Tahini cookbook for the Short Stack Collection.

Tahini Granola
3 cups oats
½ cup finely grated coconut
½ cup chopped pecans
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
⅔ cup tahini
½ cup melted coconut oil
½ cup maple syrup
⅓ cup light brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ½ teaspoon flaky salt
¼ cup chopped dried cherries
¼ cup finely chopped crstyallized ginger

Preheat oven to 350° and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Combine oats, coconut, pecans, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds in one bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk tahini with coconut oil, maple syrup, sugar, salt, and vanilla extract and then combine with dry mixture, making sure to coat dry with wet.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and cool and then stir in cherries and ginger. The granola keeps for up to two weeks.

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