Tahini, also called tahina in some countries, is a paste made from ground sesame seeds. It is often blended into other foods, such as hummus. Tahini sauce is a made with tahini, usually by adding lemon and a few other ingredients. You can distinguish between tahini and tahini sauce by the thickness. Tahini is usually quite thick, while tahini sauce is thin -- like a condiment -- and can easily be poured or spread onto sandwiches and other foods.
Tihini is the foundation for many Middle Eastern recipes like hummus and baba ghanoush. Limor Laniado Tiroche, writing in "Haaretz," a major Israeli daily newspaper, calls tahini the "queen of Israeli cuisine." The paper bestows this noble title on tihini because of its "unique combination of healthful qualities, flavor, and a dominant personality, along with an ability to easily absorb such tastes as sour, sweet, and spicy." Tiroche says.
Aimee Amiga and Liz Steinberg writing in the same paper explain the history of tahini:
The word tahini is based on the Hebrew and Arabic word tchina, which means ground, a reference to the process by which the sesame seeds are ground into a paste." Sesame seeds are toasted before being ground between giant millstones, yielding a thick, sticky, oily paste.
In almost all cuisines that make use of this food, manufacturers, chefs, and home cooks use this paste to create tahini sauce.
Tihini sauce is thinner than tahini and is used in pita sandwiches, marinades, and dips. You can store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator and it will keep for about two weeks. To make tahini sauce, start with tahini paste, add lemon, and perhaps garlic, olive oil and a pinch of salt and mix. You can use tahini in a variety of dishes, such as broccoli with tahini, samak bi tahini (fish with tahini) and beef shawarma as well as a dip for vegetables.
One of the most important ingredients in hummus, other than chickpeas, is tahini. If you frequent Middle Eastern restaurants and eat hummus, you know that hummus tastes different at various eateries. Some types of hummus have a strong lemon flavor, some have an overwhelming garlic flavor, and some hummus has a spicy tone. The inclusion of tahini creates this wide variation in flavors.
Who Eats Tahini
As noted, it's actually tahini sauce that is used almost universally in a variety of recipes. If you visit Israel, you'll see natives and tourists ladling tahini sauce over pitas packed with falafel, vegetables and sometimes even fries. Wikipedia notes that tahini-based sauces are widely used in cuisines in Armenia, Turkey, Iraq, Cypress, Greece, East Asia -- where chefs do use the tahini paste mixed with noodles -- and even in India. If you want to find tahini in the United States, either in paste or sauce form, you'll find it in Middle Eastern, Greek and Indian grocery stores. It's also readily available online and even at big-box stores.