Basic tahini sauce is made with a mixture of tahini paste, water, lemon juice and garlic. Tahini paste itself is made from toasted ground sesame seeds. Both tahini paste and tahini sauces are staples of Israeli cooking. Tahini has a nutty flavor with subtle bittersweetness. Its flavor is mild, its texture is creamy, and it can act as a canvas for an array of flavors from fresh herbs and spices to sweeteners and yogurt.
Here are three of my favorite takes on tahini sauces: spicy gochujang (Korean red pepper paste) tahini sauce, beet tahini sauce, and preserved lemon and basil tahini sauce, each which can add spice and brightness to so many dishes.
After spending over a decade living in Los Angeles, the abundance of the city’s amazing Korean food and ingredients started making their way into my cooking. One night, I wanted to spice up my tahini sauce and a container of gochujang caught my eye. Gochujang is a spicy, sweet red pepper paste that is made from fermented chilis, glutinous rice and soy. It is ubiquitous in Korean cooking as a base for condiments, sauces and soups. You can find it in many grocery stores (sometimes even at Trader Joe’s) or at any Asian market.
The first time I used it with tahini I mixed in a spoonful, and thinned the mixture with water. It took seconds to make, was a big hit at the table, and now I can’t live without this simple Korean-influenced tahini sauce. It’s especially good drizzled on crispy tofu or sautéed string beans.
Beet tahini sauce combines the earthy sweetness of roasted beets with the rich nuttiness of tahini. This sauce turns bright pink from the beets and livens up falafel, grilled chicken or simple roasted vegetables.
The last sauce combines tahini with a popular North African ingredient: preserved lemon. The strong citrusy floralness of the preserved lemon mellows with the addition of tahini, and the aromatic minty anise of the basil heightens the sauce and makes it a complex addition to anything it tops. I use it as a dressing or dip for fresh veggies, as a topping on roasted garlicky potatoes, or even spooned over crispy spinach and feta bourekas.
These recipes are guides to play around with. You can add or leave out garlic in any of these, cumin would be a nice addition to the beet sauce, and yogurt would go so well with the preserved lemon and basil. If you like your sauces thicker, add more tahini. If you like them thinner, add more water. Taste and adjust each to your liking, use immediately or store in the fridge for up to a week, and make sure to drizzle liberally.
Spicy Gochujang Tahini Sauce
1/2 cup tahini
1/2 cup water
1 Tbsp. gochujang paste (Korean red pepper paste), or to taste
1 Tbsp. soy sauce, or to taste
Add the tahini, gochujang and soy sauce to a bowl. Slowly whisk in the water, a little at a time, until the sauce is smooth. Taste and adjust the seasonings to your liking: add more gochujang for spiciness, more soy sauce for saltiness, and more or less water for consistency.
Beet Tahini Sauce
1 medium cooked beet, quartered
1/2 cup tahini paste
1/3 cup water, or more if desired
2 Tbsp. lemon juice (about ½ a lemon)
1 clove garlic, finely grated
1 tsp. kosher salt, or to taste
In a food processor or blender, combine the beet and tahini. Pulse until roughly combined. With the machine on, slowly drizzle in the water and blend until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and whisk in the lemon juice, grated garlic and salt. Taste and adjust to your liking.
Preserved Lemon and Basil Tahini Sauce
1/2 cup tahini paste
1/2 cup basil leaves (packed)
1/2 cup water
2 Tbsp. lemon juice (about 1/2 a lemon)
1 Tbsp. chopped preserved lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a food processor or blender, pulse to combine the tahini, preserved lemon and basil leaves. With the machine on, slowly drizzle in the water and lemon juice. Taste and season with salt and pepper.