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A taste for tahini


A taste for tahini

Credit: Deryn Macey

Starting with the simplicity of sesame seeds, tahini is a paste that packs a serious punch. Made from lightly roasted hulled sesame seeds that are ground into a thick, oily paste, tahini has a similar texture to peanut butter and its nutty flavour and thick, creamy texture make it suitable to use in both savoury and sweet recipes.

But perhaps just as rich as its taste are the stories behind the makers of this paste, who weave nature, history and care into their tahini for a paste that feeds much more than just your body.

A natural superfood

The health benefits of tahini come back to its origin: sesame seeds. “Sesame seeds are both gluten-free and packed with phytonutrients and antioxidants,” explains Paul Raff, the founder of Mayver’s. His family-owned, Victoria-based business creates nourishing pastes, from tahini to nut butters, that are made as close to nature as possible. “Tahini is made from 100 per cent sesame seeds, which are a rich source of calcium, antioxidants sesamol and sesamin, omega-6 and essential vitamins and minerals including zinc, potassium, magnesium, folic acid, niacin, selenium, copper and vitamins A and E,” continues Raff. The paste is also naturally high in plant-based protein, which makes it suitable for vegans and vegetarians.

“To this day I take great pride, like my father did, in seeing these huge cumbersome stones spin, yielding the first drops of tahina paste. It's both a nod to my heritage and my upbringing that we can maintain a tradition with long-established equipment in an era of modern technology that lacks soul.” – Omar Sidaoui

The inspiration for Mayver’s Tahini began with a desire to offer Australians a nourishing homemade spread. “We recognised the power of sesame seeds and sought a way to bring back the goodness of traditional homemade food to Australian kitchen tables through a delicious range of natural tahini spreads,” reveals Raff. Mayver’s Tahini is also free of cholesterol, gluten and dairy, which caters to a number of food intolerances and offers a healthy alternative to butter or margarine. “Our tahini contains no added oil, salt, sugar, hardened fats or artificial colours, flavours and preservatives,” he adds.

Working with the natural ingredient is key to making good-quality tahini, reveals Raff, by “perfecting the roasting and grinding processes”. And what’s just as important is creating the paste with passion, honesty and integrity, he adds. “The recipe is simple; we use the best-quality ingredients, work with those ingredients the best we know how and take no shortcuts. The quality of the product then speaks for itself and it provides everyday Australians with affordable, flavoursome and incredibly tasty tahini.”

Tahini steeped in history

For Omar Sidaoui, the director of Melbourne-based NSM Royal Tahini, his tahini story is steeped in history. “My late father Said Sidaoui was the first to introduce Lebanese food to Australia, opening Lebanese House Restaurant in Russell Street Melbourne in the early ‘60s,” he recalls. At this time, many ingredients that are readily available to us today, such as olive oil, could only be purchased from a chemist. “With that he started to import most items himself under the company NSM Food Wholesalers,” continues Sidaoui.

“While difficult to make, my father took great pride in creating the perfect tahina [tahina is pureed sesame seeds seasoned with lemon juice and garlic, whereas tahini is just ground sesame seeds]. What is not known, however, is that tahini is also the soul of many famous dishes such as hummus, baba ganoush and halva. My father would explore the world looking for suitable tahini, trialling products from Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and even Mexico. I remember as a child opening these tins of tahina, and as my father poured the liquid I saw his look of disappointment as all that came out was the sesame oil that had separated from the sesame, leaving a hard, almost inedible block of paste. I remember tasting these products and recalling a distinct bitter taste — my father explained this is a characteristic of poor-quality sesame seeds. It was after consistent disappointment [that] my father decided we would make our own and in the early ‘70s he travelled to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan until he found the stones and machines we use to this day.”

Manufacturing NSM’s tahini and tahina is a time-consuming and laborious endeavour, Sidaoui says, suggesting the process is akin to stonemasonry. “We don’t use a blender or mechanical grinding machines; our tahini is made using a stone-ground process, which is the same process that has been used for centuries,” he reveals. “It’s extremely intricate and precise as any imperfection present [in] the seeds can get stuck and burn. My father would explain how we had to tailor the taste through trial and error so we could finally rid ourselves of importing inferior tahini. After months, if not years, of trialling we got it; in a mutual aha-moment, NSM Royal Tahini was born. To this day I take great pride, like my father did, in seeing these huge cumbersome stones spin, yielding the first drops of tahina paste. It’s both a nod to my heritage and my upbringing that we can maintain a tradition with long-established equipment in an era of modern technology that lacks soul.”

There is also a process Sidaoui likens to “magic” that occurs before the seeds are ground. “Once samples of sesame arrive, we taste them and we look for precise colours and flavours. Once we are happy the seeds are to our high standards, the tip is to lightly toast the seeds, allowing them to naturally cool. Grinding them only after this process brings out the true flavour. It’s almost magic,” Sidaoui muses.

A planet-friendly product

Sustainable tahini production in Australia begins with food miles. “When we first started out, almost all of the tahini available in Australia was made overseas and imported. We wanted an Australian-made tahini that consumers could trust, so that’s what we did,” shares Paul Raff. “Furthermore, we package our tahini in a glass jar with an easy peel label so the jar can be reused — and of course it’s recyclable,” he adds.

“We started as a family looking for healthy alternatives to the food we love to eat and since then have grown to employ more than 40 people who all believe in a healthier future for our country. This commitment is represented in every jar of our tahini, which is locally made right here in Victoria, Australia, from nothing but natural sesame seeds.”

Creating a product that cares for the planet just as much as it does your body is also a priority at NSM. “We pack all our tahina into reusable containers, encouraging customers to repurpose and reuse as they see fit,” says Omar Sidaoui. “Every part of the sesame seed is ground; it is a zero-waste method of production we take great pride in.”

Sidaoui has high hopes for the future of sustainably produced tahini, too. “We are working towards a solar-powered plant to power these monumental stones. We hope that Australia will be able to grow its local sesame seed industry so our product can be both manufactured and grown locally; we are working towards making importing seeds a distant memory.” And perhaps, most importantly, Sidaoui reveals, “Our tahini is made fresh and packed every day; we put our heart and soul into it.”

 Hulled tahini versus unhulled tahini. What’s the difference?

Although both types of tahini are made from whole sesame seeds, they have different nutritional contents and flavour profiles. Hulled tahini has the outer shell of the seed (the kernel) removed, resulting in a creamier taste. Unhulled tahini is darker in colour and contains the nutrient-dense husk of the sesame, which offers more calcium and a stronger-tasting, bitter flavour.

Try these delicious tahini recipes here and here.



 

Ally McManus

Ally McManus, the editor of WellBeing Yoga Experience and the founding editor of Being magazine, is a freelance writer and editor in magazine and book publishing. She also teaches yoga and meditation on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula.