50 Shades of Tehina: The Perfect Food, Upgraded

Homemade or store-bought? Beet or chocolate? All the sesame secrets you need to know.

Dan Peretz

Perfect balance means that a slice of bread and whatever is spread on it complement each other. Toast with melted cheese on top is one example. The bread is dry and crisp, while the cheese is soft and oozing; without it the bread would be tasteless, and without the bread, the cheese would merely be greasy and bubbly. Similarly, nothing goes better with a thin, floppy pita than some thick tehina, wiped up from the bowl.

Raw tehina is neither flour nor oil; it is made from the whole sesame seed, crushed and squeezed, and is a mixture of both the dry and the moist parts of the seed. It’s true that when we were young, our teachers taught us that water and oil do not dwell together, but in this case, as if by magic, when you add pure water to the tehina, it is absorbed by the crushed sesame seeds and mixes with the oil as if they were all one happy family. Water transforms the paste into a thick, light-colored spread, and many would swear that – with the addition of just a little lemon and salt – its flavor is unsurpassed.

Such is our modest, unassuming tehina, which for generations has been prepared in the back alleys of the old cities of this land. This is the tehina that no proper hummus can do without, just the thing to moisten meat patties with or coat potatoes with or moderate the spice of the hot peppers in falafel and pita sandwiches. The tehina is responsible for achieving that perfect balance between the pita and the filling, between the challah and the meatballs, between the onion and the tomato. Pretty much any food you can think of will taste better with a little dish of tehina beside it.

So tasty and attractive is this tehina that people fell in love with it, and it was given pride of place in the food stalls; eateries have long been measured by the type of tehina they serve. And it is better to serve more than one kind, for there is white tehina and whole-grain tehina, tehina with parsley and tehina with tomatoes, tehina with beets or with pumpkin, warm tehina with lamb patties, or tehina blended with yogurt and honey. There is even tehina that, instead of being ground from sesame seeds, is made from almonds or pistachios or peanuts – and much more.

Today we have set the table in its honor and added nothing except for some warm pita. We mixed and we seasoned and we ate and were satisfied, and we blessed our good land, which may not have balsamic vinegar or soy sauce or chili sauce, but does have the kind of tehina that soothes sorrows and cheers hearts and has no peer as a refresher of body and soul.

Homemade versus store-bought tehina

Our little country is an international tehina superpower. It’s hard to imagine any table or meal where you won’t find at least the basic version of tehina being served, or tehina mixed with hummus, or in a salad or cooked dish. It is even making its way into the most traditional holiday meals for Jews of European descent, and showing up on the table somewhere between the gefilte fish and the chicken soup.

There is more than one superb tehina manufacturer; the choice is really based on taste or loyalty. It’s not hard to select an excellent tehina: The sesame must be of high quality and be ground with real millstones, be cold-pressed and devoid of any additives. Obviously, the family operations in Nablus, Jerusalem or Eilat are preferable, as they select their ingredients very carefully, but even some of the big producers who sell their wares in the supermarket chains make some very good tehina.

White tehina is made from sesame seeds that have first been shelled, usually by means of soaking them in saltwater. While it has a delicate flavor and smooth consistency, tehina made from whole sesame, from the entire seed, shell and all, has a much higher nutritional content, since most of the calcium is found in the shell. As a rule, genuine tehina that has been carefully and uniformly roasted, cooled and then cold-pressed, is considered a very healthy food despite its relatively high fat content. Most of the sesame used in the tehina industry is imported from Ethiopia, and choosing the organic variety promises that less pesticides are involved. Once upon a time, sesame was a common summer crop in Israel, but the amount of labor involved made it less profitable, and the sesame that is still grown here is used mostly in its natural form – for baking and as a seasoning combined with hyssop.

It goes without saying that there is little connection between the excellent raw tehina that is turned into the popular paste when prepared at home, and the ready versions found in the refrigerated section at the supermarket. Commercially prepared tehina contains very little actual tehina or lemon, but does contain various stabilizers, starch, vinegar and other preservatives. Best to stay away from it. Making tehina at home is so easy, and there’s just no comparison when it comes to the taste.

Tehina – the basic recipe

There are many variations when it comes to preparing tehina, but the basis always includes water, lemon and salt. I like to have a one-to-one ratio between the water and the raw tehina, and then season it with a little lemon juice and salt. The amount of water can vary depending on the consistency you want, and on the type of raw tehina you are using. The amount of salt needed can also vary, depending on the type of sesame used to make the tehina and the method by which the seeds were shelled.

Start by using 3/4 of the amount of water, stir well, and then if necessary, add more water.

1 cup raw tehina

juice of 1/2 lemon

1 cup water

a little salt

Stir all the ingredients together with a fork until the desired consistency is obtained. Some people also like to add a little crushed garlic or some chopped fresh parsley.

Pumpkin tehina:

Steam 300 gr of pumpkin until very soft; then mash it with a fork in a bowl. Add the tehina, lemon and salt and combine. A little crushed ginger may also be added for seasoning.

Beet tehina:

Wrap two medium-size beets in aluminum foil and roast in the oven, preheated to 250 degrees Celsius, for about an hour, until the beets have softened. Peel the beets and blend them in a food processor to obtain a relatively smooth paste. Add raw tehina, lemon and salt.

Tehina with yogurt:

Substitute thin goats milk yogurt for the water and add crushed garlic and salt. You can also add chopped mint leaves, pine nuts and a little olive oil.

Spinach tehina:

Steam about a 1/2 kilo of well-rinsed spinach in a pot with no additional water added, until the leaves shrink in volume. Squeeze out the excess liquid and combine in a food processor with tehina, lemon and salt until the desired consistency is obtained.

Chocolate tehina:

Melt 200 grams of chocolate made with at least 70 percent cocoa solids in a bowl placed atop a pot of boiling water. Add the tehina and mix until the desired consistency is obtained. If you don’t blend the ingredients completely, you will get a wonderful texture of chocolate and tehina.

Sweet tehina (halvah)

Like chocolate, tehina also likes the addition of sweet flavors. So you can add honey, silan (date syrup), pomegranate syrup or maple syrup to it. Start with the raw tehina and gradually add the sweet ingredient until it’s as sweet as you want it to be.

Not just sesame

Pastes prepared from other nuts and seeds can also be prepared in various delicious ways. For example, with the addition of a little water, lemon and salt, almond paste becomes a wonderful dip. For a sweet and tasty spread, add some silan or honey to your almond paste. In Sicily, they grind the marvelous pistachios that are grown there, and this green paste is one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever tasted. You can also grind peanuts or caraway to get flavorful spreads that can be eaten as is, or used as a seasoning in cooking. All the pastes made from ground nuts or seeds can be adapted as either a savory or sweet spread; they go very well with all kinds of pastries, or in cookie batter, or in mixtures for meat patties. It’s best to buy the natural versions without any added ingredients. They can usually be found in delicatessens and health food stores.

For pistachio, almond or peanut tehina:

Mix the nut paste with water, salt and a little sugar until the desired consistency is obtained. Fresh lemon juice may also be added to help offset the fatty texture.