Tracing Tahini

Tahini; mashed, roasted sesame seeds, is one of the most important ingredients in Middle Eastern cuisine. This is the story of two tahini factories, ancient and modern and of the people that make tahini through traditional methods. 

Words by Ronit Vered Photos by Dan Perez

The Jibrini Tahini Factory in Jerusalem

The sesame mill owned by the Jibrini family is situated in an alley of Jerusalem’s Old City, on the ground floor of an arched stone building from Ottoman times. On the floor above lives the family. Yishaq and his brothers inherited the mill, which has operated consecutively for 120 years, from their father Ibrahim. As the Bible tells us, the Patriarch Abraham was gathered to his forefathers at the age of 175, and buried in Hebron. Ibrahim Jibrini’s descendants note that he was born in Hebron and died at 122. “When dad was four years old, his father died,” his son tells, “and as customary in traditional Arab society, he married his brother’s widow. At the age of six, his uncle said he could no longer support him, and the little boy was dispatched to Jerusalem where he was apprenticed to a miller in that sesame grinding. With the outbreak of the Great War, the Turks conscripted him to the army. Father was abroad for nine years, some spent in jail, and everyone was sure he’d never come back. When he did return, amazing his neighbors and friends, one of the three original partners granted him his share in the oil press. Over the years Father bought out the other two families. He married two wives, and had eleven children, six sons and five daughters, and worked at the oil press until he was 106. All of us kids started working at the press at a young age.” Yishaq Jibrini and his son Muhammed start their working day at five o’clock. They clean the stone pools from the remnants of the previous day’s sesame, fill them with fresh water in which the sesame seeds soak. To drain the water from the soaked seeds, Yishaq uses a sieve of crisscross metal wire that he wove himself, because ordinary sieves can’t handle the daily task. Sesame grains were formerly brought from fields near Jerusalem or from other agricultural regions in the Land of Israel, but nowadays are imported from Africa. The family uses choice pale sesame from Ethiopia to produce its tahini; sesame grown in Nigeria is used to produce red tahini and sesame oil; while grains from Chad – considered the cheapest and inferior to the other three – are sold after roasting to bakers, who sprinkle them over freshly baked goods, and to spice manufacturers who use them in za’atar.

In an industrial production line, the sesame grains are sent from one station to another using mechanical or electrical power. In the Jibrini family’s oil press, which seems untouched by time, Yishaq and Muhammed compress the heavy wet sesame into large sacks, moving them from place to place on their backs. From the water pools they are moved to the electrical peeling machine. In the days when Yishaq’s father worked in the press, the grains were tossed into a large metal pan and then beaten with sticks to separate the seeds from the outer husk. The ancient mill was connected to the electricity grid in the 1930s, and metal blades have replaced the work of three people.

At around eight o’clock Yishaq crawls into the enormous opening of the stone oven. Every morning he removes traces of roast sesame that are stuck to the oven floor from the previous day’s roasting, and ignites a roaring open fire to heat up the oven’s walls. Buried beneath the stone walls are three tons of salt that help conserve the heat and disperse it uniformly in the space of the oven. Every thirty or forty years the family must renovate the ceiling – that’s liable to collapse with the clouds of condensation that collect on it daily. The family-owned factory is one of the last remaining in Israel where sesame grains are toasted in a traditional stone oven, not a sophisticated metal and electrically powered oven. It’s hard to describe the flavor that sesame grains toasted on stone bricks gives to tahini; it is unparalleled in the modern world of technology-intensive ovens. “I paid 8,000 shekels for that,” Yishaq reveals, pointing to a metal oven standing neglected alongside the stone oven. “But when we roasted sesame on iron it had no flavor and no scent – the tahini came out completely different and customers complained.”

Once the oven’s interior is hot enough, Yishaq and Muhammed introduce the contents of twenty sacks, close to 300 kilograms of peeled sesame, clean and drained. Only then they open the factory’s iron door and Zakariya, Yishaq’s brother, comes to commence his daily work. The strategic decision to adhere to their ancestors’ methods fell on Zakariya’s hunched shoulders. Day after day, in chilly winter and baking summer, he stands facing the mouth of the inferno and rakes the mounds of sesame with a long-handled iron rake – from left to right, up and down – unceasingly. The sesame seeds earmarked for making white tahini are roasted for seven-eight hours, and there’s no letup from this Sisyphean work. A moment’s break, or attention that wandered elsewhere could result in seeds that are scorched or unevenly roasted, and the burnt taste and odor will cling to the entire mass of sesame in the oven. Zakariya rakes constantly, in silence, raking with a repetitive eternal movement of his arms that over the years has contorted his back. “Only crazy people can do this work,” says Yishaq about his brother. “I worked for two hours in front of the oven then told my father, no way; only Zakariya is willing to assume this task. In the past few years we can’t find workers willing to do this work, not even for an excellent salary.”

When the roasting is completed, Yishaq and Zakariya remove the grains from the oven and spread them out to cool on mats strewn over the floor. The next step is to grind with the heavy millstones. The upper stone, called the rider (rochev), turns on the lower half, the nether stone (shechev) and the sesame grains are ground between them into a thick liquid with an intoxicating smell and a nutty taste. In the twenty-first century, the ancient millstones are turned by an electrical engine, but in each one you can still see the holes once used to tether the domestic animals. “Dad had two donkeys and a camel. The camel worked patiently and devotedly for twelve hours until dusk, but,” Yishaq laughs, “the donkeys had to be switched every two hours, otherwise they would rebel.” Then, the heavy stones were placed in the center of the room so the animals could move freely. Now they are placed to the rear of the factory, but like the ancient stone oven, the family refuses to replace for them for the ease of modernity. The only problem is the slow pace at which the tahini drips into the pipe. “It takes us two or three hours to fill a Jerrycan. Modern mills can process hundreds of kilos of tahini per day. We can only produce 40 to 50 kilograms of tahini per day.”

The Samaritan Sesame Mill in Nablus

The Cohen family’s tahini factory is located atop Mount Gerizim, also known as Har Brakha, in the Samaritan neighborhood looking south over the city of Nablus. In the market of the Old City, in the suburb of the city, and in nearby villages, there are more than twenty renowned tahini factories. “Hatarnegol” (The Rooster), “Hayona” (The Pigeon), and “Gamal” (the Camel), are only a few of the names of the factories. Most are family-owned businesses that have been operating for decades, even centuries. The tahini made in and around Nablus has earned itself a fine reputation across the region. Even during the toughest years of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, when no one entered or left the West Bank cities, Nablus-made tahini continued to show up in Israeli markets and stores. Members of the Samaritan community, many of whom hold citizenship in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, frequently acted as couriers to transfer it from Nablus to Israel.

Descendants of the minority called Samaritans – the community currently comprises fewer than a thousand people – see themselves as offspring of the former kingdom of Israel that broke away from mainstream Judaism due to religious division among its people. The Samaritans maintain that the community has lived in the Nablus area for close to 4,000 years. Present-day historians and anthropologists indeed believe that the community’s members have preserved the ancient traditions and customs that prevailed in the region for thousands of years. The Samaritans, who were persecuted throughout history by conquerors of the land almost to the point of extinction, continue to write in the ancient Hebrew script and make sacrifices to God as they did when the Temple was still standing.

“Tahini, olive oil soap, and knafeh are the three products that have been associated with Nablus since time immemorial. Nobody can compete with it in these areas,” said Hosni Yefet Cohen, a Samaritan priest and director of the Samaritan Museum. Why and when Nablus became the regional capital of tahini production, nobody knows – not even the Samaritan elders. As with other ingredients of local, historical cuisine, tahini is an inseparable part of Samaritan recipes, but the tahini factory that won the name of “Har Brakha” (Mountain of Blessings), was only established in 2008. Members of the Cohen family, one of the community’s four central families, built the factory underneath the community museum building. Ever since, the scent of fresh tahini – a sweet, nutty, hot, and intoxicating aroma – has wafted through visitors’ noses, disturbing the peace of the neighborhood’s residents.

Abu Saleh, the factory’s manager, arrives each day at six in the morning. Two shifts, each one with seven workers, make tahini from morning to night, and almost every worker comes from Beit Furik – the village where Abu Saleh was born. “Ninety percent of the expert tahini grinders the tahini factories of Nablus come from our village,” Abu Saleh affirmed. Two of his sons work with him in the factory, using traditional knowledge passed down from father to son, and from neighbor to friend. The brigade of tahini grinders from Beit Furik, like kitchen brigades in chef restaurants world-wide, takes pride in their handiwork, which entails tough and strenuous physical labor.

The production line is larger and more sophisticated than in traditional tahini factories, but it still tries to reproduce the traditional production process. Iron arms have replaced human ones, and they constantly mix the sesame seeds in powerful metal ovens to ensure that roasting is done evenly; and the sesame seeds undergo double grinding process in a modern electric grinder that imitates the work of the traditional grinding stone. A modern factory can produce thousands of kilograms of tahini daily.

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