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food / travel

Open Sesame! Tahini Spreads From Ethiopia To Israel And Beyond

It's a match made in hummus!

Sesame harvest
Sesame harvest
Anat Barzilai

TEL AVIV — A sweet, warm smell engulfs visitors the moment they enter the manufacturing hangar in the Al Arz tahini plant. Soft sunlight seeps in through the high windows, lighting millions of sesame seeds carried on conveyor belts in and out of large stainless steel ovens. Suspended above are narrow stainless steel pipes that transport pure raw tahini, and as its vapors fill the air, it all has the look and feel of a futuristic utopia. For a moment the hangar turns into a state-of-the-art spaceship about to take off.

But this isn't utopia. It's Ethiopia — sort of. We're actually in a new industrial zone of the Jezreel Valley region in northern Israel. Joining us, though, is a delegation of 23 sesame growers and exporters from Ethiopia, all members of an exporters association, who came to Israel to study up close the wonders of local tahini and to try to expand their trade.

The Israelis' affection for the magical paste (and for hummus, of course, for which tahini is a key ingredient), has turned the country into a world-class sesame superpower. And Ethiopia is one of the greatest sesame producers in the world. There are deals, in other words, to be made.

Israel is the second largest buyer of Ethiopian sesame after China. In the past three years, the Chinese have purchased about 60% of Ethiopian-grown sesame, mainly for extracting its oil. Israeli producers bought 17% of the crop, followed by Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which purchased 4% each.

After coffee, sesame is the second largest export product in Ethiopia.

After coffee, sesame is the second largest export product in Ethiopia. According to the Ethiopian sesame seed exporters association, 335,000 tons of sesame were grown in the country in 2016 — some 15% of the world output! Only Myanmar grows more. But surprisingly, Ethiopians hardly use the golden seeds, and about 90% of their output is exported.

The visit from the Ethiopian sesame growers reflects the transformation of Israel into a leading tahini manufacturer. At the basis of this process was, first, the cultural appropriation of tahini, a dominant ingredient in North African and Arab cuisine centuries before it became established as a basic food for Israelis.

And the transformation happened quickly through a rare combination of geopolitical circumstances. One was the encounter with Palestinian tahini, especially tahini from Nablus, after the Six-Day War in 1967. In addition, Israel developed trade relations with Ethiopia, which grows the suitable strain of sesame seeds.

There was also the need to develop local technology and tahini factories after the first Intifada in 1987, which made it difficult to bring in tahini from the occupied territories. Other factors included the overthrow of the military junta that ruled Ethiopia until the early 1990s and the country's opening to global trade; and Israel's easy access to foreign markets, especially in the United States, where Israeli companies have been active for years, selling "authentic Israeli" food products.

From Haile Selassie to sesame

Under these circumstances, the Ethiopian representatives view Israel as a bridge to the west. A tahini flavored and textured bridge.

The delegation's next stop was the "Ahla" factory in the industrial area of Carmiel, near Haifa. After a tour of the factory, the delegation wanders into a small, homey kitchen in the entrance floor that is used as the factory's headquarters of sorts. A friendly technician welcomes the group with a smile and mixes up a batch of fresh hummus with lots of tahini. This was the only fresh hummus — not out of a box — served during the entire visit.

The next day, during a conference at the Gilgal hotel in Tel Aviv, I meet Tesfaye T. Haimanot, 66, the oldest member of the delegation. "My name is Mr. Hope," he says, smiling. Tesfaye (hope) Haimanot was born in Aksum in the country's north, the center of the ancient Aksum Empire that ruled the region for about 1,500 years until the 10th century. He grew up with his parents and six brothers in a poor village, in a grass and wooden hut, and his life story until he became a sesame trader could fill entire volumes.

"My family was relatively advanced. My eldest brother moved to Addis Ababa to study and when he returned, he urged us all to work hard at school," he says. "I was lucky to be able to study law with a government scholarship. In 1974, when I completed three years of school, Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by the military junta. We were young then, angry and full of motivation. We refused to live under the new regime, so we left the city and became guerilla warriors. We ran around the jungles with Kalachnikovs."

At this point of our conversation, the new Ethiopian ambassador to Israel, Tsegaye Berhe, came over and hugged Haimanot like an old friend. "We were all there together in the jungles, the ambassador too, we ran around and fought the regime," the sesame trader explains. "After several years I couldn't continue fighting and I returned to Addis Ababa as a lawyer working for foreign embassies, but the ambassador stayed on to fight in the jungle until, in the end, we won. It lasted 17 years, and in 1991 a new government came to power and now he's an ambassador and I meet him here."

Haimanot started working in commerce in 1996. "My friends who came to power suggested that I switch to business. I started importing industrial machines from Germany and France and I became a successful businessman. Later I got into agriculture. Today I have fields where I grow sesame and my three children help me run the business from Addis."

He says he sometimes returns to his village with his old friends. He built a high school there and urges the youth to study.

"We fought to change our country and we succeeded," Haimanot says. "Today we have a progressive government, a government of the people. In the days of Haile Selassie there was one university. Today there are 32. We have many more things to do to change the situation in Ethiopia. There is definitely still poverty, but the middle class is growing and we expect to reach the desired change by 2025."

Nablus to Tel Aviv

Three strains of sesame grow in Ethiopia: Welega, Kalafo and Humera. The latter is preferred by Israeli producers because of its sweet, nutty flavor. A ton of Humera costs about $1,000 to $1,200 a ton, depending on the bargaining abilities of both sides. The variety is grown in the Humera region in northwestern Ethiopia, close to the border with Sudan and Eritrea. The Ethiopian government would be happy to develop an industrial zone there based on joint entrepreneurship between Israelis and Ethiopians. The Israelis, at this stage at least, are not keen on the idea.

Pure-tahini addicts set out to find the real stuff from Nablus in small shops in the alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Today, all the tahini made in Israel is produced with Ethiopian sesame. The country also imports a modest amount of sesame from India that is used mainly as a baking supplement. But until 1967, the local tahini was made with Baladi sesame, grown in Israel.

Hussam Abbas, the chef and owner of the Al-Babor restaurant in the northern Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, still remembers the delicious and crispy flavor of the Baladi sesame, which was brown and larger than the Ethiopian variety. "All the tahini factories were in Nablus — there were none in Israel," Abbas says. "In 1967, after Israel occupied the West Bank, they started bringing in tahini from Nablus to Israel. Until this day the best tahini factories — Ayesh and Karawan — are over there."

Tahini on top of any great falafel sandwich — Photo: Heidi De Vries

The Israeli tahini industry is very young and according to Abbas it only developed "after the first Intifada, in 1987, when it was harder to bring in tahini from Nablus. This is why tahini factories started opening in Israel, and it caught on."

Abbas's family from Kafr Kanna grew sesame themselves till 1976. "We would sow in the beginning of March. The plant doesn't need any watering, only rain water, and when it's a meter high, the sesame-seed pods appear on the sides. In the beginning it's green. By the end of May it starts turning yellow, like wheat, and then you pull it out with the root, gather it in stacks and dry it on the roof of the house for another month."

"When the sesame is completely dry, you turn over the stack, shake it, and the seeds fall out easily," he adds. "Some we'd keep in a jar at home and use them for cakes to for mixing into a ground zaatar herbal mix, but most we'd pack in 50 kg bags and sell to a big merchant, who would take the goods to the factories in Nablus."

To this day, brave, pure-tahini addicts set out to find the real stuff from Nablus in small shops in the alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem.

In recent years, raw tahini has become the Israeli "superfood."

"Tahini has been here for hundreds of years. It's always been used in Arab cuisine. But in recent years, chefs have discovered that local raw materials are the best and the tastiest and have high nutritional value. Tahini has become a hit," Abbas says.

Ibrahim Bashir, the producer of Baraka tahini, clearly illustrates the complex and tangled regional relations, of which tahini can be seen as a culinary manifestation.

In 1984, Bashir, an Israeli Arab, was sent by the Israeli food giant Telma to Nablus, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, to learn the intricacies of tahini production. He returned to the family tahini factory in Umm al-Fahm, an Israeli-Arab town, in order to produce huge quantities of tahini for the Israeli market. Telma was a partner in the business for about 20 years until the Bashir family acquired full ownership. Today Baraka also produces tahini under the brand name Al-hil'al, intended for the Arab and Palestinian markets, and Nablus' leading brand of tahini and halva, a sesame-based sweet.

In 2014 Bashir was awarded a prize for lifetime achievement from the Israeli Food Industries Association.

Nazareth to New York

Julia Zahar, manager and owner of the Al Arz plant, says exports to the United States make up about 12% of their tahini sales. "My son Yusuf is opening a logistics center in New York and later on we are planning to export from there to Europe."

Israel's tahini is the best. Even the worst Israeli tahini is better than any tahini made anywhere else.

The sesame is grown in Ethiopia; the traditional tahini is made all over the Middle East. So why do the Americans need the Israelis as go-betweens?

"It's true that you can get tahini from Turkey, Mexico, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and in the past also from Syria. But Israel's tahini is the best. Even the worst Israeli tahini is better than any tahini made anywhere else."

Zahar says tahini became more popular in the United States as the Americans started appreciating good food and discovering the nutritional value of tahini. With increasing awareness of obesity, Americans have started eating less junk food. "Today, instead of ketchup and mayonnaise, some Americans eat tahini. All that's left to do is to teach the Americans to better discern what makes a good tahini."

Sesame was one of the first plants cultivated for commerce. Every branch has noble-looking pink and white flowers that bow their heads like a bell. The plant's elongated pods look like cellophane-wrapped candy. When they open they expose neat rows of sesame seeds.

The sesame plant is very resilient in dry weather and is therefore grown in hot regions. Its resilience makes pesticide unnecessary. All sesame cultivation, therefore, is organic. On the other hand, the pods tend to spread their seeds the moment they are dry, so they have to be harvested very gently and dried under controlled conditions.

It takes eight months in a row with no rain to grow sesame. Ethiopian farmers usually gather the sesame branches in stacks and leave them out to dry for one last month, praying it won't rain.

Dr. Dejen G. Meskel, a physician who to turned to sesame farming after marrying a woman from a line of sesame-farmers, was born in Addis. "It is a very multicultural, colorful city. And in the last 20 years it has developed very quickly," he says.

Before that, the explains, most of the areas in Addis Ababa were very poor and the whole country, ruled by a dictatorial regime, suffered a long war. "Agriculture was not developed and only the elite benefited from an education," Meskel says. "The government promoted communist principles, so that the ideas of a free economy and capitalism weren't even known. Since the regime changed, the country has opened up to the free market."

The meaning of the words "Addis Ababa," he explains, is "new flower." With the changes that Meskel describes, the Ethiopian capital, it seems, is truly living up to its name.

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