Tahini is a popular condiment that’s commonly consumed by itself (as a dip or sauce), and is also a major ingredient in other condiments and spreads such as hummus, halva, and baba ghanoush.
The condiment may have originated in Eastern Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and North African cuisine, but it’s becoming increasingly popular elsewhere in the world, so I get asked quite a bit if it’s suitable for vegans.
Is it vegan? Yes, tahini (including tahini sauce and paste), is vegan. It’s simply ground up sesame seeds so it’s 100% plant-based and thus 100% vegan. It can be used in various recipes that may or may not contain animal products, but tahini itself is vegan.
What we’ll do here is get into the various reasons why tahini is considered vegan.
Why Tahini / Tahini Paste Is Vegan
Tahini is 100% plant-based.
While it is obvious that sesame seeds are vegan, fewer folks know that tahini is vegan. It just seems like it would take more than pulverizing the sesame seeds to warrant an entirely new name.
But, you have to remember that sesame seeds have a ton of applications in food products, so we need terms to differentiate sesame seeds in products like crackers vs the form of sesame seeds used as a condiment.
So, the sesame seeds are ground up to make the paste known as tahini. This paste can be used directly as a condiment or further processed into a sauce or salad dressing.
Why Tahini Sauce Is Considered Vegan
Tahini sauce doesn’t contain animal-derived ingredients.
I’d imagine that most folks wondering if tahini is vegan probably have the sauce in mind. After all, any time a sauce has a white creamy look to it, you can pretty much consider it a red flag.
This is because a lot of sauces have dairy products added to them. Dairy is loaded with saturated fat and proteins like whey and casein. The protein and fat content of milk makes it a favorite for use in condiments because these components add flavor and provide a nice creamy mouthfeel.
While plain mechanically processed sesame seeds are (without any added ingredients) known as raw tahini or tahini paste, tahini sauce is the paste with a few extra ingredients added to it.1
According to Wikipedia, tahini-based sauces usually include the addition of lemon juice, garlic, salt, and water.2
So, where does the creaminess come from? Well, when you blend up nuts and seeds for long enough, you’ll eventually get a nice smooth/creamy texture. This is because nuts and seeds are loaded with natural plant oils.
While it’s true that a lot of condiments get their creamy color and texture from milkfat, plants also come with their own fair share of fats and oils.
The white color comes from the fact that sesame seeds are white when raw, and most tahini is made with raw seeds.
Thus, you get a creamy white end product.
Sometimes you’ll see tahini salad dressings which often contain extra ingredients. But, I’ve never run across one that contains animal-derived ingredients. Common ingredients in tahini salad dressing include water, mashed sesame seeds, water, vinegar, seasonings, and a thickening agent.
For example, Teta Foods tahini salad dressing contains the sesame paste along with water, vinegar, salt, citric acid, modified food starch, dextrose, and various plant extracts.3
Non-Vegan Forms of Tahini
Just because a food is vegan itself, doesn’t mean every application of the food will be suitable for 100% plant-based eaters.
While the most common uses of tahini involve plant-based products like hummus, there are a few applications that involve meat and eggs.
Tahini is often used to top meat in Middle Eastern cuisine.2
In Jewish cuisine, it’s commonly used as a cooking sauce for meat and fish.4
In some regions, tahini is often served along with kufta, a dish made of lamb or beef, herbs, spices, and a whole fish. Far from vegan-friendly.
I was also surprised to find that tahini sauce is somewhat common in desserts like ice cream and parfait.5,6
Tahini is also fairly common in cookies, which contain non-vegan ingredients like egg and butter.2
In Gazan cuisine, a rust-colored variety of the food known as “red tahini” is commonly served in addition to regular tahini. While it is vegan—it’s simply achieved by a lengthier roasting process—this version is often used in sumagiyya, a dish made with lamb.
In the Palestinian city of Nablus, tahini is mixed with qizha paste to make “black tahini”, used in baking.7 This dish is often served with animal products.
In the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean), tahini is commonly prepared with salt, lemon juice, and mashed garlic. It is then served as a condiment with pita, or falafel—both of which are vegan—but is commonly served with shwarma, a Middle Eastern cuisine made up of thinly sliced meat, stacked in a cone-like shape.
In this region, tahini is commonly used as a cooking sauce for meat and is always served with fish. It’s also a primary ingredient in Siyadiyeh, a popular seafood dish.
Anyway, these are just a few potential uses of tahini you’ll likely encounter in certain restaurants and when living in/or visiting certain regions of the world.
But, 99% of the tahini (both sauce and paste) you’ll encounter in North America will be completely free of animal products. The most common food you’ll find tahini in will probably be hummus, which is pretty much always vegan-friendly.
Baba ghanoush, which I mentioned at the beginning of the article also tends to be suitable for vegans. This dish, also spelled baba ganoush or baba ghanouj, is a popular Levantine appetizer made of mashed cooked eggplant mixed with olive oil, tahini, various seasonings, and (possibly) lemon juice.
That’s it for the vegan status of tahini. Thanks for reading.
You may also want to check out the following related articles:
- Get Your Juices Going Again. Limor Tiroche – https://www.haaretz.com/1.5213673
- Tahini. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tahini
- Tahini Dressing. https://tetafoods.com/product/tahini-dressing-taratoor/
- Claudia, Roden (1997) The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, Knopf, New York ISBN 0-394-53258-9
- Recipe: Tahini Parfait with Snappy Sesame Crunch. https://www.thejc.com/lifestyle/recipes/recipe-tahini-parfait-with-snappy-sesame-crunch-1.469109
- Halva Ice Cream. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halva_ice_cream
- ‘Gaza Kitchen, as a Portal” https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/gaza-kitchen-as-a-portal/2013/04/22/640031f8-a7cc-11e2-8302-3c7e0ea97057_story.html