It's been a cornerstone of Middle Eastern, and particularly Levantine, cooking for centuries, and tahini is still just as in demand as it's ever been. In fact, its popularity is spreading: the sesame seed paste has been touted as one of the year's trendiest foods by British supermarket chain Waitrose.
The upmarket grocery company, which has stores in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, has named tahini as one of 2019's most popular foodstuffs in its annual Food and Drink Report, released last week. The condiment, which is made from toasted and ground hulled sesame seeds, was listed as a trend-leading food with a trajectory that's set to continue into 2020.
Describing tahini as a "core" component of hummus, Waitrose revealed: "It’s now a popular ingredient in its own right, with searches for tahini paste on Waitrose.com up more than 700 per cent from last year." The supermarket's 2019-2020 report is based on "millions of" sales figures from its branches and website over the last 12 months, as well as a poll of 2,000 UK adults who shop across a range of retailers.
Tahini, which is used in baba ganoush, as a salad dressing and as a dip for meats and falafel, is also used in Asian and African dishes. Zahra Abdalla, a food blogger and cookbook author who lives in Dubai, is unsurprised that tahini is rising in popularity outside of the Middle East. "It's a wonderfully versatile ingredient that adds depth, texture and flavour to both savoury and sweet recipes," she tells The National. "In addition, there are so many health benefits to tahini: it is rich in antioxidants, has anti-inflammatory compounds and anti-bacterial benefits."
The author of Cooking with Zahra: A Culinary Journey of Traditional and Modern Middle Eastern Cuisine, even has a spoonful of the paste when she feels a cold or sore throat approaching, citing it as a high source of protein, vitamins B and E, and magnesium, iron and calcium. "That usually does the trick to help me recover faster."
When it comes to cooking with tahini, Abdalla recommends adding the condiment to honey or date molasses for a quick breakfast. "It's also wonderful when combined with lemon juice, olive oil, water and chilli powder as a rich, nutty sauce perfect for any grilled vegetable, falafel or even as a salad dressing," she says. "You can even be creative and add tahini to your brownies, cheesecakes or protein ball recipes for a nutty layer of flavour."
Abdalla, a mother of three, buys her tahini ready-made from the supermarket "as it makes my life easier", and says cooks shouldn't feel guilty about not making everything from scratch. "I think that with the growing trend of both vegan and keto diets, people are needing to be more creative about how to eat healthy and complete meals that are both delicious and nutritious."
For those who want to give it a go, home-made tahini requires hulled sesame seeds, ground in a food processor with a touch of oil – start with a few tablespoons – until the mixture becomes smooth and silky.
Joining the condiment in vogue this year, according to Waitrose, were crumpets, sales of which were up 27 per cent, and celery juice, with sales of the organic vegetable rising by 30 per cent at the supermarket chain. Vegan ready meals, seaweed and soba noodles were also named as foodstuffs rising in popularity throughout the year.
Waitrose highlighted Middle Eastern cooking in general as a growing trend, noting that its customers appear to be making plenty of dishes from the region. "Waitrose Cookery School courses in Middle Eastern mezze, Moroccan kitchen and chicken shawarma are currently sell-outs, while rising sales of sumac, baharat and zaatar show that we’re cooking increasingly ambitious dishes," the report stated.
"My kitchen would not be complete unless it had sumac, pomegranate molasses, zaatar, saffron, rosewater and orange blossom in stock," agrees Abdalla. "All these ingredients add a wonderful layer of delicious flavour to my recipes."