Ethiopian sesame is considered the highest quality worldwide and is the third most abundant globally. A variety of Ethiopian sesame, called White Humera sesame, is known to be the best for making tahini, and as such, is exported to many countries – Israel being its top importer.
The Humera and Gondar regions are located in northern Ethiopia and spread from an historical capital of the country, the City of Gondar, until the northern lowlands of Humera which intersect with the borders of Sudan and Eritrea.
The Ethiopian highlands saw a series of kingdoms including Sheba, Ta’mad, and Axum which prospered in the northern and eastern regions of Ethiopia as well as across the Red Sea. As the first country that publicly adapted Christianity, the first to accept Muslims, and first to host Jews (being the only country in Africa with a significant presence of Jews), the country stands tall in religious tolerance. Throughout the Imperial age, where all Sub-Saharan African countries were colonized, Ethiopia stands alone as the one country that remained uncolonized.
First encounter with tahini sauce.
Despite living in the Middle East in Yemen for many years, I never encountered tahini sauce before my visit to the UK in the late 80s. I have noticed sesame growing in Yemen ever since, but it is only used for making honey sesame bars, eaten roasted, and as an oil seed. Halwa is also another product made from sesame seeds and it was brought to Yemen by Egyptians but only available in main cities when I was young.
On a nice summer day while walking in London, I happened see this Arab-looking man standing in a small shawarma restaurant in Kings Cross area. I approached his stand and ordered a shawarma and noticed that he is adding a creamy dressing along with the shawarma mix of meat and salad. I asked him, in Arabic, “what is this sauce?” He answered “Tahini Sauce.” I asked for a taste of it separately and he put a spoonful on my palm. I liked it a lot and said with surprise “this is sesame!”
The man then gave me an explanation while serving his customers sandwiches rapped in pita bread. He was pouring his tahini sauce onto his wraps with pride, which may have came from encountering an Arabic speaker who did not know about tahini sauce. I finished eating my wrap and then ordered a second wrap asking for extra tahini sauce. He added more tahini and I enjoyed the taste so much that I came back to him again and again.
Back in Yemen I heard that it also existed, but I have never encountered it before. I started eating foods with tahini such as shawarma, falafel, kebab, Middle Eastern salad, hummus, baba ganoush (a paste made from tahini sauce and eggplant), roasted chicken with roasted potatoes, and many other dishes. Tahini has been a part of my diet since I first discovered it back in Kings Cross.
Tahini produced in Ethiopia has many benefits. It eliminates the need to import sesame from Ethiopia to the Middle East for production and then again to EU markets for sale. Ethiopian tahini production results in the immediate savings in consumer price resulting from lowered sesame transport cost. Ethiopian farm and factory labor rates are much lower than anywhere in the Middle East which results in producing a superior product at a lower cost while supporting agricultural communities. In addition, local tahini production ensures that the final product will include 100% Ethiopian Humera sesame. Some Middle Eastern producers mix high-quality Ethiopian sesame with cheaper Asian sesame to save on costs. Lastly, the export of value-added products helps the local and national Ethiopian economy with foreign currency which is required to import critical items such as medicine, fuel, global knowledge, and the like.