Saturday, May 13, 2006

Sweet and Savory Sesame

The other day, a few of us were having lunch at a Tel Aviv cafe. One of us was telling a story about her grandfather, originally from Russia, who can't stand a few local foods, such as Tchina. A great wave of sadness washed over the table. "Life without tchina", mumbled another friend. "Fancy that. How sad".

Yes, we Israelis love our sesame. We like it on our bread crust, we like it as sweet halvaof various flavors, we use it to coat our schnitzels (breaded chicken meat) - but most of all, we love it as that fabulous paste, out of which we make a dip, a sauce or a spread, according to taste. Americans call this divine paste "tahini", which has always made me giggle; the word tchina comes from the verb litchon, to grind. And, indeed, raw tchina is nothing more than ground sesame seeds.

I confess I'm not a big fan of halva, though Chad loves it very much and always keeps a box of a local, Jaffa-made variety, that looks like an old lady's hair. I've given up sweets, and I don't really miss them all that much. My fandom of sesame is almost entirely due to the fantastic tchina I eat everywhere.

There is, however, one exception; the wonderful and crumbly tchina cookies I tasted, for the first time, at YAFA - a little cafe/bookstore in central Jaffa, and our local peace oasis. YAFA is devoted to the understanding between Jews and Palestinians, offers a variety of interesting books about the Middle East, and hosts an impressive curriculum of classes in spoken and literary Arabic. They also serve fragrant herbal tea, accompanied by these little delicacies. After tasting them in the company of my dear pals Shachar and Amit, we all sought to recreate them; Amit, who is vegan, loves them and makes them often to our delight. The recipe I'm posting today, however, has a few small changes, which I think improve the cookie's rich texture and allows vegans to skip the use of margarine (yuck).

The following two recipes - one for stir-fried vegetables with tchina, the other for the cookies - are my entries for a fun event, organized by Barbara at Tigers and Strawberries, called The Spice is Right: Sweet or Savory? I guess sesame, as well as sesame paste, are spices but also ingredients, and that's how they're used in these recipes. Enjoy.

Stir-Fried Vegetables and Tofu with Tchina Sauce

1 tablespoon olive or canola oil
1 package extra-firm tofu
4 garlic cloves
3 carrots
3 zuccini
1 package forest mushrooms, or fresh shiitake, or dried, pre-soaked shiitake
5-6 large leaves of kale or chard
1 inch piece of peeled and chopped or grated ginger
4-5 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons raw tchina

black pepper or chilli flakes to taste

Mix soy sauce and tchina; cut tofu into 1/2 inch cubes and soak in the mix. Chop all vegetables into 1-inch cubes, and tea the kale or chard to large but edible pieces.
While tofu is happily soaking, heat up the oil in a large wok. When the wok is very hot, add garlic cloves and ginger, and stir a bit until fragrant. Then, add the vegetables: first the carrots, then the soy-tchina sauce from the tofu (keep the tofu aside for a while). Let the carrots sit in the wok a bit until they start to soften, then add the zuccini, mushrooms, tofu, and finally the kale. Add black pepper or chili flakes to taste and enjoy.

Tchina Cookies with COconut Milk and Spices

1/2 cup raw tchina
1 1/2 cups whole wheat or whole rice flour (I used the latter)
5 tablespoons coconut milk
4 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon of each: cinnamon, ground clove, nutmeg
3 heaped tablespoons brown sugar (optional)

Heat oven to 180 degrees celsius. Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Knead to a dough. The dough comes out crumbly and a bit on the dry side, so do not be alarmed; if it's very dry, add some more coconut milk or tchina. Now, make small (less than 1 inch) cookies; due to the dough consistency, you can't exactly roll it, but rather squeeze it into a little ball. If you want to go fancy, one of these cookie presses might come in handy, will make your life easier, and your cookies prettier. Amit has one; yet another kitchen appliance which seems to be a refugee from the 1970s and works like a charm. Place on baking sheet and bake for about ten to fifteen minutes. Remove when cookies are slightly golden and no longer soft, but before they brown (they don't taste as good when very brown). Consume with herbal tea or fragrant Turkish coffee.


Shunra said...

Mmmmmm, those cookies sound divine.

Keep the recipes coming - this section of your readership applauds loudly!

Hadar said...

Yay! Thanks,dear!
Yes, the cookies were wonderful. They literally melted in our mouths. I confess I made this batch with no sugar at all, just spices, and their gentle sesamey-coconutty flavor was more than enough.

Alanna said...

Hi Hadar! Welcome to the food blog world from a blog "cousin" -- A Veggie Venture! Barbara Fisher suggested I check out your new blog - I see why, it's terrific and its' great to have your voice added to din! B and I are both happy to help! Alanna PS I'm sooo tempted to move to the kitchen NOW to make the sesame cookies. It's always risky to have all the ingredients on hand!

Hadar said...

Hi Alanna! Thanks for visiting - I'll certainly pay your blog a visit, too! Can't have too many veggie fans! :)

Anonymous said...

Your recipe looks worth inspiring.
Thanks for sharing.

Hadar said...

Thanks, Ramya! I hope you enjoy it.