• Don't overlook the origins of this much-loved sesame paste. (Feast magazine)Source: Feast magazine
Is the current elevation of this ingredient - without acknowledging its Middle-Eastern roots - a case of cultural appropriation?
Ruby Hamad

9 Jan 2018 - 10:36 AM  UPDATED 9 Jan 2018 - 10:14 AM

At first glance, the secret password ‘open sesame’ in the classic tale Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves may seem odd, or insignificant. But the choice of the sesame seed (sem sem in Arabic), which is the sole ingredient in tahini - the rich spread long treasured in Middle Eastern cooking - was no accident.  

In the ancient Middle East, sesame oil was both food and medicine, and, according to James Mosely, author of The Mystery of Herbs and Spices, just as that cave bursts open to reveal untold riches, “when sesame seeds are ripe, they burst open with a pop reminiscent of a springing lock”.

Tahini also features in South-East Asian, Central Asian, and African cooking, but, it is its esteemed place in Middle-Eastern cooking (particularly from the Levant region encompassing Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan) that has propelled its popularity across the globe, and it is the Arab language that gives tahini – or more accurately tahinnyya – its name.

More than merely an exotic alternative to peanut butter at trendy cafes, tahini is a vital ingredient in many Arab dishes you’re probably already eating without even realising it.

The full name of hummus, for instance, is hummus bi tahiniyya – literally ‘chickpeas in tahini’. Baba ganoush, the smoky eggplant dip features tahini as its second ingredient, and the Arab sweet halva is a tahini-based dessert.

Imagine my surprise, then, when several times over the past few weeks, I have come across numerous web articles and books gushing about the virtues of tahini –  but either forgetting or deliberately omitting its connection to the Arab world.

One popular ‘superfood’ cookbook, for instance, acknowledges tahini’s importance in many cultures, but doesn’t name any of them, not even the culture and language that actually gives the wonder paste its name: Levantine Arabic.

Then there are the increasing number of articles that appear credit tahini’s invention to Israeli chefs. One claims to provide a ‘short history of tahini’, but also neglects to mention Arab cooking, instead singing the praises of an American company on a mission to, “finally bring good tahini to America”. From Israel.

To be clear, this is not about who “owns” or is “allowed” to eat what food. Rather, it is a reminder that there are some foods that are indelibly tied to certain to regions and cultures, and to deny this history is an act of aggression.

Chocolate nut halva cake: another great use of tahini.

For some years now, there has been a concerted effort to rebrand many foods central to Arab cooking as Israeli. ''Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is trying to improve Israel's image to the world…through culture,'' Israeli chef Michael Katz admitted to Fairfax back in 2011. “They started sending artists, singers, painters, filmmakers and then the idea came of sending chefs.''

Falafel, hummus, and couscous, which go back centuries, are now promoted as Israeli foods, even though Israel itself has only existed since 1948. This might seem harmless since Israelis also eat them, and some Israelis have Middle-Eastern ancestry going back many generations.

However, in a time where Palestinians continue to be denied their own state with some Israeli and American politicians even denying their existence, and Arab people in general are routinely mocked as lacking cultural value, the embrace of Arab food is not a celebration of a shared cultural experience, it is a form of cultural erasure. Attributing these foods solely to Israel is a way of legitimising that country while simultaneously delegitimising Palestine and Levantine Arab culture in general.

One popular ‘superfood’ cookbook, for instance, acknowledges tahini’s importance in many cultures, but doesn’t name any of them, not even the culture and language that actually gives the wonder paste its name: Levantine Arabic.

American celebrity chef Rachael Ray took this erasure to bold new heights recently when she managed to attribute even tabouli and rolled vine leaves to Israel on her Twitter feed. Twitter, of course, responded in classic style by tweeting pictures of everything from tacos to sushi under the banner “Israeli nite”.

Sure, it’s tempting to laugh it off, but this is true cultural appropriation: taking one aspect of a certain culture and praising it, adopting it, and claiming it as one’s own, even as the culture from which it came is maligned and disempowered.

In Levantine Arabic, when one is about to eat, the custom is to say to them, saha, which loosely means ‘bon appétit’, but literally translates to ‘health,’ and an appropriate reply is ala albeek, meaning ‘to your heart’.

Health to your heart. This is the role food plays in Levantine Arab culture; nourishment for our physical bodies and our emotional wellbeing. Tahini is a true wonder food, one that tastes as good as it is for you, with a proud history and tradition that my ancestors have helped passed down from generation to generation.

Although high in calories, consisting purely of ground sesame seeds in all their oily richness, it is also nutrient-dense - a great source of calcium as well as iron and protein. Indeed, it is foods such as tahini, along with hummus (as in the actual chickpeas), lentils and other legumes that feature so heavily in the dishes of the Levant that made it so easy for me to adopt a vegan diet without looking back.

So while it is a joy to see tahini spread (ahem) so far across the world, please don’t erase its history and the people and places that helped bring it you. Ala albeek

T is for Tahini
10 ways with tahini
A firm fixture in Middle Eastern, Turkish, North African and Greek pastries, this sesame paste is used in both sweet and savoury dishes.
How do you falafel?
Chickpeas or beans? Hummus or tahini? The world is divided when it comes to making this vegetarian fast food staple.
Hummus with spiced lamb (hummus b'lahmeh)

Versions of this comforting dish are made throughout the Middle East.

Syrian-style hummus, lamb kebab

The secret to Syrian-style hummus is that it’s made with roasted chickpeas and that’s what gives it such a unique flavour. The kebabs are just as simple – no marinating or heavy seasoning. It’s all about the quality of the lamb and the fat you buy.

Chocolate nut halva

Derived from the Arabic word for “sweet”, the term halva or similar is used in countries around the world to refer to countless varieties of nut- or flour-based confectionery. This sesame-based version, popular throughout the Middle East, is from Lebanon and is swirled with chocolate, slivered almonds and pistachios.