Tahini; mashed, roasted sesame seeds, is one of the most important ingredients in Middle Eastern cuisine. This is the story of two tahini factories, ancient and modern and of the people that make tahini through traditional methods.
Words by Ronit Vered Photos by Dan Perez
The Jibrini Tahini Factory in Jerusalem
The sesame mill owned by the Jibrini family is situated in an alley of Jerusalem’s Old City, on the ground floor of an arched stone building from Ottoman times. On the floor above lives the family. Yishaq and his brothers inherited the mill, which has operated consecutively for 120 years, from their father Ibrahim. As the Bible tells us, the Patriarch Abraham was gathered to his forefathers at the age of 175, and buried in Hebron. Ibrahim Jibrini’s descendants note that he was born in Hebron and died at 122. “When dad was four years old, his father died,” his son tells, “and as customary in traditional Arab society, he married his brother’s widow. At the age of six, his uncle said he could no longer support him, and the little boy was dispatched to Jerusalem where he was apprenticed to a miller in that sesame grinding. With the outbreak of the Great War, the Turks conscripted him to the army. Father was abroad for nine years, some spent in jail, and everyone was sure he’d never come back. When he did return, amazing his neighbors and friends, one of the three original partners granted him his share in the oil press. Over the years Father bought out the other two families. He married two wives, and had eleven children, six sons and five daughters, and worked at the oil press until he was 106. All of us kids started working at the press at a young age.” Yishaq Jibrini and his son Muhammed start their working day at five o’clock. They clean the stone pools from the remnants of the previous day’s sesame, fill them with fresh water in which the sesame seeds soak. To drain the water from the soaked seeds, Yishaq uses a sieve of crisscross metal wire that he wove himself, because ordinary sieves can’t handle the daily task. Sesame grains were formerly brought from fields near Jerusalem or from other agricultural regions in the Land of Israel, but nowadays are imported from Africa. The family uses choice pale sesame from Ethiopia to produce its tahini; sesame grown in Nigeria is used to produce red tahini and sesame oil; while grains from Chad – considered the cheapest and inferior to the other three – are sold after roasting to bakers, who sprinkle them over freshly baked goods, and to spice manufacturers who use them in za’atar.