A growing number of people are going vegan every year, for various reasons. You may be looking to boost your health, it could be that you have become troubled by some of the unethical practices in the meat and dairy industries, or perhaps you have been won over by the environmental arguments. Regardless of your precise reasoning on why to become vegan, it is likely that the switch will cause you to try new foods that you are unfamiliar with and a good example is a tahini, which is often recommended for vegans, but which you might not have tried before.
So what does tahini taste like? The closest comparison may be peanut butter or another nut butter. However, it does not have the naturally sweet taste of most nut butters and instead has the earthy quality associated with sesame seeds, while also offering a subtle and slightly bitter aftertaste.
Tahini can be eaten as a paste or dipping sauce or used as an ingredient within other foods, like hummus. It is popular with vegans because it contains relatively high levels of iron, protein and calcium, which can be harder to source when you do not eat meat, dairy, eggs or any other animal products. In this article, I will explain what tahini is and what it tastes like in more detail, while also covering some of the different varieties of tahini that exist. I will also cover its nutritional value and explain why it is so popular among vegans.
What is Tahini and What Does it Taste Like?
Tahini is a paste or sauce, which is similar in consistency to various natural nut butters. It is essentially the equivalent of peanut butter if the peanuts were replaced with sesame seeds, which is why it is sometimes called sesame seed butter. To make it, the seeds are ground or pureed into a paste. It is popular in both the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, and aside from functioning as butter of sorts, it can also be served as a dipping sauce, used as a food topping, or included as an ingredient within other foods, with hummus being among the most obvious and popular examples.
In its plain form, the sesame seed paste is unprocessed, with no additional ingredients. This is sometimes referred to as raw tahini. The earthy taste of sesame seeds is immediately apparent within the paste, while it has none of the natural sweetness associated with peanut butter and other nut butters, which can sometimes take people by surprise. It has a slightly bitter taste, which becomes stronger if the tahini is made from un-hulled sesame seeds.
Some of the bitterness can be offset by soaking the un-hulled seeds for a few hours first, before grinding them. Pre-packaged tahini will often be more bitter in taste than tahini made freshly at home or served in a restaurant. Hulled or lightly roasted sesame seeds can be used instead, which reduces the bitterness further.
Aside from its use within hummus, it can also be used within salad dressings or other sauces. However, many like to eat raw tahini or variations which are quite close to being raw, with only a small number of added ingredients. For example, salt may be added, in order to offset some of the bitterness, or water may be added, to make it thinner.
One of the most common variations to be aware of is tahini sauce, which is sometimes served in restaurants. This is generally blended tahini, combined with some additional ingredients, like garlic, salt, water and/or lemon juice. These extra ingredients are almost always vegan-friendly, but it may be worth double-checking with the restaurant. The salt can help to reduce bitterness in the taste, while garlic enhances the flavor, providing more intensity.
In some parts of the world, including Turkey and Iraq, tahini may be combined with a syrup, which provides a much sweeter taste. This combination of tahini and syrup is often used as a dessert dipping sauce or a dessert topping.
The absence of animal products within tahini makes it popular with both vegetarians and vegans and as I will cover in more detail later on, it has nutritional qualities that can help you to stay healthy. If you are buying pre-packaged tahini, it is still sensible to check the label for any questionable ingredients, just in case.
It is also important to address one area of potential confusion, related to the difference between tahini and sesame paste. So what are the differences and are the two ingredients essentially interchangeable in name and usage?
Is Tahini the Same as Sesame Paste?
As previously stated, tahini is a paste made from sesame seeds, and this can be the source of real confusion because many people are unsure whether or not tahini – which is common in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking – is the same as sesame paste – which is used in Chinese cooking. In truth, the two pastes are similar, but not identical. For this reason, if a recipe specifically asks for sesame paste, using tahini in its place may alter the flavor.
The main difference between the two products centres on the fact that the sesame seeds used for Chinese sesame paste are more heavily toasted, giving its flavor more depth than you get from tahini. This Chinese sesame paste is often sold in Asian supermarkets, tends to be packaged in jars and has a wide range of different uses within Chinese cuisine.
To make matters even more confusing, there are two different types of Chinese sesame paste and its uses can differ, depending on the type. The first type, made using white sesame seeds, is often used for noodle dishes, salads and cold sandwiches, whereas the darker variety is often used for desserts. This variety can also be adapted slightly, in order to create a dessert known as black sesame soup, which is popular in countries like China, Vietnam and Singapore.
It is worth noting that the overall confusion that surrounds the two ingredients means that they are sometimes used interchangeably, even by experts. With this in mind, it is theoretically possible that a recipe calling for sesame paste is actually calling for tahini or vice versa. However, generally speaking, tahini refers to the Middle Eastern-style paste, while sesame paste refers to the Chinese-style paste, which is more heavily toasted, giving it a slightly fuller flavor.
Is Tahini a Healthy Food for Vegans to Eat?
If you have recently adopted a vegan diet, it is possible you are still struggling to find foods that meet your nutritional requirements. After all, many people source important vitamins and nutrients from animal products and the change to avoiding these products can leave people unsure about how to appropriately balance their diet.
Tahini is often talked up as a healthy part of a balanced vegan diet, because it is rich in a number of key nutrients, such as calcium, iron and magnesium. It is also high in protein, which can be essential for vegans, and is an excellent source of vitamins B1 and B6. Furthermore, it contains plenty of healthy monounsaturated fats, which have anti-inflammatory properties. Diets rich in these fats have even been shown to lower the risk of developing type-2 diabetes.
Tahini’s protein content is higher than in dairy milk, while studies suggest the polyunsaturated fats contained within can help to support brain function and may also play a role in decreasing heart disease risk. It is also notable that magnesium can lower blood pressure, while the zinc content in tahini can be beneficial for skin and bone health.
The precise nutritional value of tahini will depend on the type of sesame seeds used and whether or not they have been hulled. As some of the nutrients are contained within the husk, un-hulled sesame seeds provide greater nutritional value than hulled seeds. For instance, un-hulled seeds offer noticeably more dietary fibre.
In terms of things to watch out for, the main thing to note is that tahini is quite high in calories (around 600 kcal per 100g). This is not a major concern, because it tends to be eaten in fairly small amounts as a paste, dipping sauce or accompaniment. Nevertheless, it is important to try to keep your tahini consumption under control.
Should You Store Tahini in the Refrigerator?
Finally, on the topic of tahini, one aspect that divides opinion quite considerably is the best location to store it. Some people believe it is best to store tahini in the fridge, while others insist on keeping it in a cool, dry place, such as a cupboard or pantry. In truth, both options are absolutely fine, and it will come down to personal preference more than anything, but there are advantages and disadvantages associated with both storage options.
If you have purchased the tahini from a store and it is in a sealed jar or container, it is generally perfectly fine to keep it in a cupboard or pantry. Tahini has a reasonably long shelf life, and as long as you intend to eat it within a few months, there should be no real problems here in terms of freshness. With that being said, the high oil content does lead some to prefer it in the fridge, even when completely sealed. Refrigerating tahini will also extend its shelf life quite considerably, meaning you can wait much longer before actually opening and eating it.
Once opened, or if you are making your own tahini, you still have a choice in the matter, although the argument for keeping it in the fridge does become stronger. Again, the high oil content may mean the tahini goes rancid over time and the time needed for this to occur will be much shorter at room temperature than in the fridge.