Jerusalem Chef Offers a New Contender for the Best Tahini in Israel

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Kamel Hashlamon's tahini.
Kamel Hashlamon's tahini.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Kamel Hashlamons impressive millstones were chiseled by Mohammed Halabi, a Syrian stonemason who learned his craft from his father and grandfather. Halabi left his country due to the civil war and now works in Izmir, Turkey. He still imports from Syria the black basalt stones from which he creates round millstones for grinding sesame.

We met him in Istanbul, says chef Kamel Hashlamon, who recently opened a small new tahini factory in Abu Ghosh. We went to him to explain our specific needs. He usually cuts the stones to 120 centimeters in diameter, and ours is 150 centimeters – and to learn how to work with the traditional stones. The bottom of the upper stone has channels carved into it that help spread the sesame seeds evenly on the smooth lower stone; friction between the two grinds the seeds into a liquid paste.

Choosing to make tahini with traditional millstones, even if powered by electricity and connected to a computer that regulates their speed, necessarily meant that production would be very small-scale.

Fresh tahini.Credit: Dan Perez

I cant grind more than 30-40 liters of tahini a day, says Hashlamon, watching the thin stream of tahini trickling from the stones. You have to grind slowly. The temperature cannot exceed 60 degrees, to maintain the traditional cold-pressing. When I traveled to Jordan and other places where they still make tahini with grindstones, I found that I really loved the smooth texture of the tahini, even if its not so easy to work with the stones.

Kamel Hashlamon was born in 1979 and grew up in Shuafat in East Jerusalem. He studied cooking at Hadassah College, apprenticed in the kitchens of the American Colony and King David hotels, and then spent four years working under chef Yoram Nitzan at Mul Yam restaurant in Tel Aviv. This writer first met him when he opened Turquoise, an outstanding Lebanese restaurant on the roof of the St. George Hotel in East Jerusalem (Haaretz, April 2013).

At Turquoise, Hashlamon built a splendid menu of traditional dishes like charcoal-roasted kubbeh, a mezze of bulgur, almonds and smoked red pepper paste, stuffed grape leaves cooked in olive oil with new potatoes, and other dishes he had learned to prepare from his mother and his Lebanese grandmother.

But relations with the hotel owners soured and the young chef had to leave the restaurant, which declined in quality soon after his departure. In the four years since then, Hashlamon has moved from job to job. At first he opened a small business of culinary tours and private meals in East Jerusalem. I took a few big groups and everything looked promising, he says. But then the stabbing intifada started and no one wanted to go into the alleyways of the Old City shuk and the Muslim Quarter. So the business was finished practically as soon as it began.

Kamel Hashlamon.Credit: Dan Perez

He worked in the kitchens of restaurants in Jerusalem, Haifa and Modiin, but even for someone as modest and easygoing as Hashlamon, its hard to go back to being an ordinary cook after youve been the chef of your own restaurant. Then he tried to open his own place, but had trouble getting enough funding for it. Those who are fond of and admire this talented young man, who blazed an unusual path despite the hardships that come with being born in East Jerusalem, watched with concern as he struggled to find his place in the world. One couldnt help but wonder how different things might have been if he had been born in the western section of the city.

In the tahini capital

A year ago, he and a childhood friend who imports sesame from Africa began thinking about opening a small press to produce high-quality tahini. The two friends traveled to Turkey to meet with the Syrian stonemason and learn how to operate the traditional millstones. The next stop on Hashlamons quest to make fine traditional tahini was Nablus, the tahini capital. This ancient city, which in different periods served as the regions administrative and commercial center, is still home to dozens of traditional tahini-making factories, large and small. In the surrounding villages, many of the men, like their fathers before them, are experts at grinding sesame seeds for tahini.

A sesame grinding stone.Credit: Dan Perez

I apprenticed with the Al-Haraz family, says Hashlamon. Theyre considered one of the biggest names in tahini around here. After nearly a year of learning and preparations, and after the stones arrived from Turkey, his mill opened in December.

I chose the name Al-Yasmin because it speaks to Arabs and Jews, and I hope the location in Abu Ghosh will also make it accessible to as many people as possible, says Hashlamon. At first glance, the shop, located in a small commercial center, looks like a standard store. But in the back room, theres a large open oven in which the sesame is toasted and the nutty fragrance of freshly ground tahini – made from three types of sesame seeds imported from Ethiopia – wafts from the huge millstones.

Making tahini.Credit: Dan Perez

White tahini, made from shelled sesame seeds that were briefly toasted, has a very smooth, creamy texture (also compared to other tahini made in Israel) and a delicate flavor that accentuates its sesame basis. Red tahini is also made from shelled sesame seeds, but ones that are toasted for a longer time, three to four hours. This produces tahini with a strong roasted flavor and a light orange-brown hue. (At the Jibrini press in East Jersualem, one of the few places where tahini is still made with traditional techniques and on a very small scale, the seeds are roasted for six to eight hours.) Whole tahini is made from unshelled seeds. Im generally not a big fan of whole tahini and find white tahini tastier, but in Al-Yasmins version the sesames natural sweetness comes through, and it has a wonderfully smooth texture.

For now, Hashlamon is working on his own, roasting and grinding the sesame himself day in and day out. His small operation is open daily, from morning till evening, though on Sundays and Mondays Hashlamon also travels around a bit trying to sell his products to restaurants. And despite the marvelous quality, this is no easy task. The small-scale production means higher prices, and struggling restaurants cant easily justify the cost, as much as they tout their support for local producers. The shops display window also features several types of halvah produced in Nablus under the Al-Yasmin label.

Al-Yasmin mill, Old-Fashioned Tahini and Halvah. 84 Hashalom St., Abu Ghosh; (02) 674-7772. 35 shekels a kilo for white tahini, 30 shekels a kilo for red or whole tahini.

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