SIDON, Lebanon: Lebanon and surrounding countries from Syria to Jordan and Palestine are famous for their Levantine cuisine. But you cannot make many of these special dishes without one crucial ingredient: tahini. Tahini is a thick, tan-colored paste made from ground sesame seeds. Lebanon has become one of the leading producers and exporters of tahini to all corners of the world. Wherever there is a Lebanese community you will find tahini, and Lebanese people have built factories as far as the United States to manufacture the precious paste.
No one knows exactly when tahini-based dishes were originated. According to ancient stories, the Turks and Greeks were the first to produce tahini, which made its way around the Mediterranean to become an important part of the region’s cuisine.
Tahini is a main ingredient in the Lebanese cuisine, especially in Lebanese mezze – most famously hommos with tahini. Tahini is also used to produce the sweet specialty halawa which is made from a mixture of the sesame paste and sugar syrup.
Across Lebanon there are dozens of factories that produce tahini and halawa – enough to supply the local market and to export the products.
Mounir Bsat owns one of Lebanon’s oldest factories in Sidon producing tahini and halawa, founded in 1904.
“Our factory is one of the first to make a halawa and tahini in Lebanon and the Arab world,” Bsat boasts, trumpeting the popularity and quality of his products.
“Halawa and tahini have many health benefits. Research has proven there are substances in it that help reduce cholesterol,” he adds.
To make tahini, the factory has a simple procedure.
“We bring in the best kind of sesame from Sudan which is geographically close to Lebanon. Some merchants also import sesame from Nigeria and India,” Bsat says.
Bsat explains the manufacturing process, stressing the importance of cleaning the seeds and factory hygiene.
“First the sesame seeds need to be cleaned well and then roasted so that the water from the washing evaporates. Next the seeds are put in electric machines and crushed in order to extract the tahini,” Bsat says.
While electricity does the hard work of manufacturing tahini today, long ago a lot more muscle was required.
“In the past, we used horses or mules to get a stone to swivel to crush the seeds, but today generators take on that job,” Bsat recalls.
The process requires four hours to produce one kilogram of tahini.
“Tahini doesn’t contain any preservatives and the longer it is stored, it loses its quality,” Bsat warns, but adds that his company puts an expiration date on their product for 24 months from the date of production.
As tahini producers, Bsat’s factory also makes the tahini-based halawa. While recipes for halawa vary from country to country, the Lebanese make halawa by combining tahini paste with sugar syrup or honey.
Because of its sweetness, many people eat halawa as a dessert, but Bsat says that this is common mistake.
“Halawa is a main dish. It is a popular and healthy food containing essential nutrients,” he asserts.
“In Lebanon there is common misconception that halawa is eaten as a dessert after a main meal. Even though it can be delicious, you can eat it as a full meal.”
For diabetics, Bsat makes halawa with artificial sugar, but cautions that “it’s not for people going on a diet, because it has more calories than the regular halawa.”
In the past halawa used to be made without any additional ingredients or flavoring, but today you have halawa mixed with walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios or chocolate.
One kilo of Bsat’s plain halawa costs LL6,000 while a kilo of tahini is sold for LL7,000. Of course, prices abroad differ depending on shipping and customs fees.
Bsat’s factory exports their tahini and halawa products all over the world – to Gulf countries, Europe, the U.S. and Australia.
In the last 20 years he has added China to that list, as Lebanese communities have begun to pop up there.
“There are restaurants being opened by Lebanese people in China and tahini and halawa are being introduced to the Chinese,” Bsat says, but he believes it will be a while yet before the Chinese begin to use tahini as an ingredient in their cuisine even though they already make sesame oil and even use sesame in some medicine and cosmetics.
“With [China’s] new openness to the world we expect it to grow into an important and big market,” Bsat says.
“We are proud of our product and wherever there are Lebanese you will find tahini and halawa,” he adds.