Many years ago, I had a dipping sauce that was yogurt based with an Indian curry added. It was served to me, likely with chicken, and I wanted to ignore the rest of the meal and eat the sauce. Clearly, this needed to become a reality in our home. So, off to the kitchen I went. I added a bit of yogurt and some powdered curry and called it good.
I’ll cut to the chase: it needed some serious improvement.
The sauce wasn’t balanced. It was sour and spicy. It had no sweet element. The texture was grainy, and it ran off the vegetables I dipped it into. The color was okay. And it smelled fantastic. But, it was still a sad, sad sauce.
I went back to the drawing board.
The most important flavor element the sauce missed was sweet. Sweet, however, doesn’t always come from sugar. Fat can add a bit of sweet. And, yes, although I use a whole-milk yogurt, there’s still something to be said about using the right ingredients in the right ratios and quantities. I started with the yogurt, and brought a sweet fruitiness to the party with olive oil. Salt and pepper balance out the oil, but, this still didn’t solve the viscosity – the sauces still ran off of whatever I dipped in it. And, sure, I could just use a spoon to spoon it into my face, but, well, that’s just not quite the same. So, back to the drawing board I went.
I needed something that would cling. Something that wasn’t bland, but, that didn’t bring too much flavor to the party. And, it couldn’t be an egg. Though an egg will fix many ails in the kitchen, plopping a raw egg into some yogurt didn’t seem like a good idea to me (though maybe it is). The sometimes greasy texture of mayo (egg and oil) wasn’t appealing, and I didn’t want to make a custard (egg and dairy). I didn’t want to cook or heat the sauce, so a slurry of corn flour or arrow root powder was also out. So I opened my fridge and rummaged through and found some hummus leftover from a few nights before. I pulled it out to add to the cut veggies I had out on the cutting board, and reached for the tahini.
Yes, you read that right. tahini. A staple in many kitchens across the world, particularly in the Middle East, tahini is ground up toasted sesame seeds. If you’ve ever ordered Pork and Seeds from a Chinese restaurant, or eaten sesame seed candy, you’ve tasted tahini. Much like peanut butter, it tastes exactly like the product it comes from. Commercially available tahini rarely has added salt or emulsifiers (stabilizing agents that keep the oil in nut and seed butters from separating). Despite this, the separation is minimal. The flavor added is mild, and slides in to the sauce perfectly. And, just a little bit will go a long way.
So, let’s talk about some substitutions for a second before we head into the recipe. We’re not afraid of dairy or fat in our house, so whole milk yogurt is a staple. You could certainly use a low-fat yogurt. I would suggest a thicker and creamier textured yogurt regardless – a Greek yogurt fits the bill well. If you’re not a fan of yogurt, sour cream thinned with milk, cream, half and half, or buttermilk would also work well. Non-dairy – reach for your favorite yogurt substitute. Please note though: I haven’t tested this one without dairy.
For the olive oil, I recommend the fruitiest, fullest olive oil you have on hand. Because the recipe isn’t heated, extra-virgin is perfect for this. Other richer oils with a full flavor will also work. Sesame seed oil is perfect because it goes with the tahini. I don’t ever recommend plain vegetable oil. Cooking is about flavor, and you bring flavor with every step. Why not bring more flavor rather than less?
As for the tahini, if you don’t have it, you could use peanut butter, though I would lean more toward cashew or sunflower butter as a replacement due to the more subtle flavor. It’s also easier to find cashew or sunflower butter without added salt, sugar, or unnecessary emulsifying agents.
You could easily add a shallot or chives (I’ve done this a time or two), some honey, or other herbs. I think basil would make an excellent addition. Especially if you add fresh herbs or shallot, allow the sauce to rest so the flavors all have a chance to settle in together.
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As always, I’m not a doctor, dietitian, or nutritionist. I make no claims on the health of the recipe. I just understand food, flavors, and what works well together. Whenever serving anyone, please consider food allergies and sensitivities. The two are different, and should always be respected.