Tahini and toum

Toum (pictured top and top right) and tahini (pictured bottom and bottom right), both with Middle Eastern heritage, are food writer Kim O’Donnel’s go-to condiments.

When we agreed to get married 15 years ago, my husband also agreed to a mayo-free zone. Upon request, I will happily whip up a quick batch of blender mayonnaise. He has my blessing to get his fix of the jarred stuff anywhere but here. Lining the shelves of our refrigerator door, you will always find prepared mustard and ketchup. Hot sauce and horseradish, too. More recently, those jars and squeeze bottles have been sharing space with two saucy condiments that I cannot seem to get enough of. Everyone has a go-to condiment, the sauce or spread that will make anything sing, including an old shoe. The condiment that you would happily lick off your sweater. For my mother, that condiment is mayo. For me, it’s tahini sauce and toum.

Also known as garlic sauce — toum is the Arabic word for garlic — it is an iconic sauce of Lebanese cookery. I came to know it more than 15 years ago by way of Lebanese Taverna, a longtime restaurant and market with multiple locations in the Washington, D.C., area. At first glance, toum could be mistaken for mayonnaise or maybe an aioli (which is a garlic-flavored mayo), all of which are both creamy and spreadable. But one tiny taste will set you straight; toum is unmistakably all about the garlic. You will immediately know if you’re a lover or if you need to run for the hills.

I don’t know how I did it, but I went without toum for many years due to a couple of cross-country moves. Since moving to Lancaster, I have thought more than once about driving to northern Virginia for a fix. I’m pretty sure that having tahini sauce in its stead — for drizzling on salad greens or roasted vegetables, for dunking cucumbers and carrots, smearing onto sandwiches or eating from the spoon — has kept me from falling off the condiment cliff.

Life took an interesting and extra delicious turn a few weeks ago, when I learned to make my own toum. The internet will tell you it’s hard and mysterious to make at home, that you need to alternate ice water with lemon and not too much, and so on. Truth be told, my first attempt was a stinker, as in 24 cloves of pulverized garlic and not even a hint of an emulsion. I sought counsel through cookbook author Maureen Abood, who is among a dying breed of food writers sharing recipes and cooking know-how on her website. Even Abood, who is Lebanese, has been tripped up by making toum. The trick is to take it really slow with the oil, an exercise in mindfulness that is counterintuitive to our instant-presto culture but that will pay off in the most scrumptious ways.

When toum meets your favorite summer grilled goodies — zucchini, corn, chicken, peppers, pork chops, to name a few — you will wonder out loud what took so long for this magic moment. (P.S.: Tahini ain’t so bad, either.)

Toum in process

Very slowly incorporating the oil into the pulverized garlic is mission critical to getting fluffy, spreadable toum.


Adapted from cookbook author Maureen Abood.As detailed in the directions, the key to this egg-free emulsion is very gradually — even slower than you would for mayonnaise —incorporating the oil into the pulverized garlic. The extra time — about 15 minutes — is the difference between spreadable garlic magic and a garlic-flavored oil.

Makes 1 scant cup.


  • 1/2 cup whole garlic cloves, peeled (15 to 18 cloves, depending on size)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus a pinch
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons neutral oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste


1. Slice garlic in half and remove green shoot (also known as the germ), as needed.

2. Place garlic in the small bowl of a food processor or a mini chopper and add the salt. Blend until minced, then scrape the sides of the bowl. Repeat until pulverized, almost pastelike. Scrape the sides of the bowl.

3. Measure out 1/2 cup of the oil. With the motor running, add the oil very slowly in 1-teaspoon increments. Stop and scrape the sides of the bowl. Repeat two more times. It will seem as nothing has happened, but very slowly adding the oil, especially at the outset, is critical to creating a fluffy, spreadable emulsion (versus a garlic oil).

4. Continue with the 1-teaspoon increments, now stopping and scraping after every third or fourth addition. At this point, you may notice that the mixture looks like horseradish; congratulations, you are on your way to an emulsion.

5. Continue adding the oil in the same manner, now stopping and scraping after the sixth or seventh addition, until you have used the entire 1/2 cup. The toum should be fluffy, spreadable and snow white in color.

6. With the motor running, gradually add half of the lemon juice, alternating with the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil.

7. Transfer toum to a bowl and taste. If adding more lemon juice, gently fold a small amount (up to 1 tablespoon) with a rubber spatula.

8. Store in glass jars (versus plastic, which is very absorbent) in the refrigerator, where it will keep for a few weeks.


A paste made from ground sesame seeds, tahini is a pantry staple for cooks throughout the Middle East. In this country, it’s best known for giving hummus its distinctively rich and nutty flavor, but it has the umami depth to be a sauce on its own. Seasoned with garlic and lemon juice, and thinned out with water, tahini comes together in about five minutes.

Makes about 2 cups.


  • 5 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 5 tablespoons lemon juice (from about 2 lemons)
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup tahini, stirred well before using
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup cold water


1. Place the garlic, lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt in a blender or mini chopper. Pulverize until the mixture is well blended and even a little frothy.

2. Transfer to a bowl.

3. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the tahini. Stir vigorously with a fork. You will notice that the mixture quickly thickens.

4. Gradually add the water, while stirring, until you have a creamy but pourable sauce.

5. Store in a glass jar. Keeps in the refrigerator for about one week.

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