If I were a scholar, I’d happily get lost investigating how and why particular ingredients turn up in widely divergent cuisines. How did cardamom, for example, wind up flavoring both Indian curries and Scandinavian baked goods? Why does cilantro grace Mexican tacos as well as Vietnamese banh mi’s?
Of course, it’s not news that ingredients are globe travelers — we all know the story of the New World tomato’s impact on Old World Italian cuisine, for example. But I am often surprised to realize just how idiosyncratic certain foods are about choosing where to settle down and make themselves at home.
My latest explorations have concerned sesame seeds, a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine that also shows up plastered onto the outside of sushi rolls and flattened into Charleston benne wafers, among other dishes. Sesame seeds arrived in my mental inbox thanks to a Christmas gift I sent my older sister: exquisite halvah from a place I stumbled upon five years ago at Manhattan’s Chelsea Market. Started by three women, Seed & Mill has since grown from a little kiosk into a bustling company whose products are sold nationwide. Yet they still consistently turn out some of the best halvah and tahini I know.
After I placed the order for my sister, I duplicated it for myself. After all, I feel a scholarly need to explore what happens when ingredients sent to her California kitchen likewise arrive in my New York one.
I thus spent December experimentally nibbling away at tasty slabs of pistachio and dark chocolate halvah. But now that it’s January, my thoughts have turned to foods that are leaner and cleaner. Fortunately, sesame fits the bill here, too, in the form of tahini sauce, whose fresh, brisk flavor contains soft bitter notes (from the sesame) and a lovely tartness (from the lemon juice). It goes just as well with roasted vegetables as raw salads, and makes a terrific accompaniment to braised meats or beans.
I was 16 when I first encountered tahini sauce at a hole-in-the-wall cafe on South Street in Philadelphia. It accompanied a tableful of food: falafel, souvlaki, hummus, tzatziki, gyros — words that felt almost as marvelous on my Midwestern tongue as the dishes they referred to, and left me with an achy, wondrous sense of the mysteries and stumbling blocks the world still held in store for me. I loved each dish individually, and loved them even more mixed and matched into a flavorful chaos.
I had come to Philadelphia with a group of friends from Westtown School, the Quaker boarding school I’d been sent to in 10th grade. It’s likely that, on the day in question, my friends and I had hitchhiked at least part of the 25-mile trip from our campus into the city (because why pay for a bus when you can travel for free?), and that we were buzzed on something or other we’d ingested in one of Philadelphia’s storied parks.
Nowadays, my parent-friends like to look back in fear and amazement on the trouble we got into as teenagers, proclaiming that if our own kids find themselves in half as much, God help us all. We seem convinced that there’s a diminishing global supply of the fairy godmothers that look out for teenagers.
Of course, kids have always gone places and done things their parents couldn’t imagine. The exact nature of the adventures might change. But what persists is the urge to test boundaries — geographical, social, cultural, and, yes, even legal — in order to know, when the time comes, just where we belong.
Roast Broccoli and Za’atar Chickpeas
Za’atar, a Middle Eastern herb-and-seed blend, is available in the spice section of many supermarkets.
- 1 large head broccoli, cut into florets
- 2½ tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 to 3 teaspoons salt, divided, plus pepper to taste
- 2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas
- 2 tablespoons za’atar seasoning
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, toss together the broccoli, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 to 2 teaspoons salt and pepper. Spread on a baking sheet and roast 12 to 15 minutes, or until slightly charred, rotating the pan halfway through.
Meanwhile, if using canned chickpeas, rinse and drain them, then pat them dry. In a medium bowl, toss chickpeas with the za’atar plus the remaining half-tablespoon olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Spread on a baking sheet and add to the oven with the broccoli. Roast until they are turning dark brown and crispy, about 12 minutes, rotating pan halfway through.
Toss the roasted broccoli and chickpeas with enough tahini-yogurt sauce to coat. Serve warm, with additional tahini sauce on the side.
This versatile sauce tastes great on all kinds of roasted vegetables, from butternut squash to zucchini, and can also be drizzled on stewed or roasted beans, as in the recipe above.
- 1 cup loosely packed parsley and mint leaves, roughly chopped
- ⅔ cup tahini
- ½ cup Greek yogurt, preferably full fat
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 cloves garlic, minced, about 1 teaspoon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Sesame seeds for serving, optional
If you have an immersion blender, combine all the ingredients except the sesame seeds in a flat-bottomed cup and blend until smooth. If not, mince the herbs very fine, then whisk everything together in a small bowl. Set aside until ready to use, or store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.