Open sesame

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on June 28, 2019 Published on June 28, 2019

Dessert special: A sweet halva made with sesame seeds, almonds and honey   -  ISTOCK.COM

A trip to Israel is a lesson on the versatility of a commonplace ingredient

Most vacations leave me with a mild case of the “if onlies”. My trip to Israel certainly has.

If only we’d had one more day amidst the ancient alleys and gilded domes of Jerusalem. If only we’d packed in one more frozen yoghurt at Anita’s and one more evening at the beach in Tel Aviv. If only we’d managed one more trip to Abu Ashraf’s eccentric café in Nazareth for a second round of katayefs, sweet pancakes stuffed with cream cheese and walnuts.

All these are wistful whispers in my head. But there’s one regret that’s a grouchy bellow. If only I’d had the presence of mind to carry back a great big bottle of tahini, a couple of extra kilos of Israeli halva and maybe a sack of sesame seed pastries and cookies. All those magical concoctions and confections that the Israelis conjure up from that rather commonplace ingredient — the minuscule seed of the sesame plant.

Over 10 days in Israel, we experienced many things: The resentment spawned by borders and walls, the rules of kosher, the excitement surrounding the sabbath and the wonders of sesame seeds.

Not that sesame seeds are alien to Indian cuisine. After all, archaeological remains indicate that the plant — a native of India and Africa — was domesticated here a whopping 5,500 years ago, before travelling to other parts of the globe. This has given the seed plenty of time to enter our chutneys and traditions.

Til  is the secret ingredient that gives Bohra kari (a rich mutton curry) its buttery, nutty flavour. It is the unacknowledged star in milagai podi — the red gunpowder that peps up the stodgiest of idlis. It is the glorious heart of the crisp, honey-hued til papads and golden gajjaks that appear in the mithai shops every winter. And it pairs up with peanuts to make til laddoos the most irresistible snacks.

As I write this column, I realise that I’ve always enjoyed the subtle, nutty flavour of sesame seeds. I’ve tried my hand at noodles tossed with sesame and peanut dressings, sampled black sesame ice cream in Japan and opt for bagels and breads with a generous sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.

Even so, Israel was a revelation. A journey of discovery that began with tahini.

It took us a couple of days to guess the identity of the delicate, white sauce plonked on every table in restaurants in Jerusalem. For years now, I’ve made my own tahini — good enough to be stirred into hummus, but too raw and bitter to be used as a standalone dip. The creamy, sweetish Israeli version popped up everywhere — from the bustling Arab quarter of the old city to the trendy Jaffa Street of the new city. We plopped tahini on falafels and shawarma, slathered it on potato wedges and spooned it onto rice pilafs.

In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, we ordered a sort of raita that used tahini instead of dahi. In the seaside town of Netanya, we used the sauce as a ketchup substitute with burgers. At breakfast in Nazareth, I spread it on bread instead of jam. In Tel Aviv we gazed in amazement as the server plopped it onto a Hawaiian Poke Bowl featuring raw salmon and Oriental vegetables.

The next discovery we made was halva.

I’m not a fan of Indian halvas. So when our guide suggested that we taste free samples of the local sweet during a walking tour of Jerusalem, I shrugged and dawdled.

Foolish me. The moment I popped the flaky morsel into my mouth I realised that the only thing this confection had in common with the papaya and doodhi halvas of home was the name. A quick consultation with Google revealed that this dense, crumbly, elusively flavoured delicacy was made of sesame seeds and honey.

Google also pointed the way to halva heaven. So a couple of days later we headed to the main shuk of Jerusalem — the bustling, colourful Mahane Yehuda Market — where we sampled chilli halva, chocolate orange halva and almond halva. After which we bought boxes of the unadorned sesame-honey original.

Both tahini and halva are traditional recipes of West Asia. But as we travelled through Israel, it was clear that sesame seeds — with their many nutrients and health benefits — have become a mainstay of contemporary recipes as well. Sesame seeds feature in elegant cheesecakes and sumptuous ice creams; trendy nutri-bars and delicious crescent-shaped rugelach rolls.

Back home, I find that the internet, too, is chock-a-block with exciting recipes — for cookies and salad dressings, Tahini caramel sauces and bowls of oats topped with sesame paste and raspberries. This makes me berate myself all over again for forgetting to bring back a massive tub of tahini.


Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author. Her latest book is What Maya Saw

Tahini cookies


(Modified from a recipe in Bon Appétit):


  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 tbsp honey
  • 3/4 cup tahini


  • 1 Heat the oven to 180°C. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter, sugar, and honey in a large bowl for 3 minutes. Beat in tahini, then add dry ingredients slowly, beating until fully combined.
  • 2 Scoop out heaping tablespoons of dough and roll into balls. Place on two parchment-lined baking sheets, about two inches apart. Bake cookies until golden brown. This will take about 15 minutes.
  • 3 Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets and become firm.

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Published on June 28, 2019
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