May 102008

Meierleh, Meierleh, You’re a Cannon*

Look at that. One post into my new endeavor, and already I’m back to writing in Hebrew. Bear with me, though, for I mean to touch on an issue of vital importance to all creation: tehina.

You may be confused. You may have never given tehina much thought. To some people, tehina may well be “tahini,” the bitter, runny white sauce served alongside falafel at Middle Eastern joints, or the pale amber emulsion sold in tiny jars next to the natural peanut butter wherever Ani fans congregate to swap dread-waxing tips. And while those things, true, are technically tehina, the Pizza Hut Big New Yorker was technically pizza. The tehina one can find in America is usually produced either by natural foods companies, who too often substitute feel-good for taste-good, or by the Greeks, who should stick with what they know: delicious rotating buckets of compressed mystery meat and endemic corruption (thanks for democracy, Homer and ouzo, though, you lovable Hellenes).

Real tehina, much like a certain other oily Middle Eastern product, is zealously guarded by the Arabs and only stingily doled out to the nations of the world. Lebanon, being (in part) the most Western-friendly of the non-Gulf Arab states, is reasonably generous with its ground sesame, with the mediocre Ziyad and fairly decent Al Wadi being easiest to find. But me, I ain’t gonna settle for no fairly decent. I been to the mountain. I heard the Word. I’ve wiped hummus at my beloved Taami in Jerusalem, at Abu Shukri in Abu Ghosh, at the other Abu Shukri in Abu Ghosh, at…the other Abu Shukri in the Old City, hummus made by Arabs, hummus made by Jews, hummus made by Druze, and by God, I will not allow the quality of my own hummus to be limited by no castoff export Produit du Liban. I’m more than sure the Lebanese produce excellent tehina, but unless they’re packing it into Katyushas, it’s not crossing any borders.

No, to get real tehina, I had to work my connections. I headed to the local Mossad outpost, which these Amerikaki rubes call “city hall,” and sent a coded communiqué to Zionistan: “Send tehina. Also Krembos, limonana, arak, za’atar and Liraz Charchi. Jabotinsky, Jabotinsky, Nile to Euphrates. David Ben-Crockett out.

My liaison in Zionistan, Meier, took up the case. Specifically, I was searching for what the cognoscenti call the king of tehina: Karawan. The Nablus-based Karawan, subject of an informative, even moving Haaretz piece by the usually irritating Gideon Levy, is as close as tehina gets to an artisanal brand: family-owned, made in small batches using antiquated methods. The scion of the Palestinian family that churns it out is the incredibly sweet-natured and enthusiastic Ala Tamam, who’s taken plenty of time out of a doubtless demanding sesame-milling schedule to share his passion for tehina and hope for peace with the readers of the Humus101 blog. If I may be allowed to briefly remove my tongue from within my cheek, if we ever manage to extricate ourselves from the morass of the last four decades, it will be because powerless men make the powerful realization that it is better to break bread than to break spirits. If we can agree on tehina, perhaps one day we can agree on borders.

Anyway, Meier, a homeboy of the truest shade of blue, set out on the trail of the elusive Karawan, sometimes hard to find even in Israel (due to its small output, West Bank origin, and lack of kosher certification). Meier hit Machane Yehudah, Jerusalem’s central marketplace, where I used to live, and asked for Karawan at several shops, whose owners to a man disavowed any knowledge of the stuff. Perhaps they genuinely hadn’t heard of it; perhaps they had, but were worried about selling a product without kosher certification in the all-kosher-by-law Machane Yehudah; perhaps – and this is my theory – they were fulfilling their genetic mandate as shuk shopkeepers of puckish sourness in all things. But the indefatigable Meier hit upon a bright idea: he went up to one of the market’s many Arab employees and asked, “Do you know where to find Karawan tehina?” The man’s eyes lit up with all the passion of a gourmand who has encountered an unexpected kindred soul, and he said “Follow me.” He led Meier to a dusty stall in one of the dimly-lit, less-trafficked corners of the shuk and told the shopkeeper to surrender the choice tehina. And that was how the box filled with jars of tehina and bags of spices arrived on my doorstep not long after.

I quickly realized upon opening it that the hard-won tehina was not Karawan, but rather a brand I’d never tried before, Eljamal (or perhaps Al-jamal, depending on how you want to transliterate), a Palestinian brand emblazoned with a family of eponymous camels. Even though it wasn’t Karawan, I had no doubt, given the story of its purchase and the crudely affixed mostly-Arabic label, that it was the proverbial good shit.

This tehina could beat you in a fight.

Duly curious about the nature of my prize, I scoured the Hebrew Internet for any mentions, coming up with a handful. The translations, and any resulting incidents of linguistic awkwardness, are my own.

Walla, a popular Israeli web portal, in the course of a right-headed article detailing the proper way to prepare hummus at home, declared that “with good tehina it’s possible to get better results; Eljamal is recommend, and can be obtained at the shuk.” Well, yeah.

Meanwhile, this food blogger, writing about a new (and seemingly now-defunct) food website delivering Arab culinary delicacies to Tel Avivi bubbleheads who can’t figure out how to get to Jaffa, asks, “Why don’t more people eat Eljamal tehina and have their eyes opened by the abundance of pleasure?” (This particular turn of phrase does not carry over well from Hebrew.) Encouraging.

And of course Shooky, the unquestioned doyen of hummus on the Internet, and something of a personal hero to me for his tireless efforts in battling the pernicious influence of those savages who eat hummus pureed with black olives, weighs in with by far the most detail, stacking Eljamal up against Karawan and Dove tehinas:

“There are people who, if you ask them, will aggressively maintain that Eljamal tehina, it and no other – certainly not Dove – is the best in the world. Others assert the complete opposite. […]

The tehina of the Eljamal factory, also in Shechem [Nablus], is a heavy tehina with a grey cast, somewhat murky. It’s thicker, relatively bitter, and using it requires more skill. In short: this isn’t a tehina for the pampered, or for people who wrinkle their nose at any trace of bitterness. Think of coal-black Arab coffee, well-scorched, with the overpowering aroma of cardamom – Eljamal tehina is its parallel in the world of sesame. If you’re taking your first steps into the field, perhaps this isn’t the place to start.

Pros: A tehina with presence. Heavy and rich.
Cons: More bitter and less user-friendly.
Conclusion: For the advanced.

That Shooky knows his stuff. But even if, when it comes to hummus, his word may be scripture, scripture always leaves room for commentary. And having eaten plenty by now, I can attest that it is a son of a bitch of a tehina. It is, as Shooky says, thick and gray, evincing little of the tendency of lesser tehinas to separate into a layer of sesame and a layer of oil. Eljamal remains a dense and malevolent uniformity. It spreads sensuously across the palate and its flavor gradually increases until the whole mouth is filled with a rich, earthy and deeply complex taste of sesame, which then quickly ducks out and leaves its surprisingly winning associate bitterness behind. Seriously, Eljamal is hard bop and American tehina is a British trad band. Ain’t no contest. Throw caution to the wind, fuck the fact that the average tehina molecule contains more saturated fat than Scotland on a football night – you can eat Eljamal by the spoonful. I say, goddamn.

It also makes fine hummus, but as Shooky implies, its powerful taste can clobber the hell out of the comparatively meek chickpea, even when lemon and garlic are thrown into the ring. My justly famed hummus recipe is going to require some tweaking.

And let’s render praises due: every man should be so lucky as to have a friend who will sling tehina his way. Much attitude of gratitude, Meier.

*Atah totach, “you’re a cannon,” is a Hebrew term of endearment corresponding roughly to “you’re a hell of a dude.”