Exiled by sesame seeds: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on a Jewish culinary accessibility conundrum

Tahnini is everywhere.

Hummus and tahini. Sesame bagels and everything bagels. Deli breads. Za’atar. Challah. Halvah. The proverbial Christmas trip to a Chinese restaurant.

Until there was a sesame allergy diagnosis in my family, it had never occurred to me exactly how associated sesame is with Jewish cuisines of all kinds. My first thought was how tricky the absence of sesame would make Japanese, Chinese, and Korean food, which, in effect, yes, you have to make it at home only. And fine, yes, Israeli food, of course, of course.

But then you start to think about it and it’s like, bagels! Even the plain ones have stray sesame seeds. This is not an issue if you (as I did, before) often order sesame bagels. But what if you it’s not merely an unwanted extra but a potentially deadly surprise?

I see a headline, “How the sesame seed became the most Jewish of all ingredients,” and think, ugh, tell me about it. For most, a delight. For a few Jews out there, a disaster.

When you think of Jews and food restrictions, your thoughts presumably go to kashrut. Keeping kosher is, among other things, a way for Jews to bond with one another. An in-group, out-group dividing line. It’s restrictive to keep kosher if you’re living in a mainly secular or non-Jewish world, but if it’s what everyone around you is doing, it is—I would imagine, or else why is anyone doing it?—something positive as well.

Food allergies are not like that. It’s not just that they are non-negotiable medical restrictions that confusingly get lumped in with food preferences in the popular imagination. It’s that they make it harder to eat outside your home (or even to buy groceries) generally, but can also limit things in terms of community gatherings. If you’re allergic to a key ingredient in your cultural heritage (which, I have learned, is not uncommonly how it goes; people are allergic to the foods common in the diets in their own communities), this means not joining in certain meals. It’s an accessibility issue, but not one you hear much about, except on private forums where people from sesame-heavy cultural backgrounds gather and vent about their or their families’ predicaments.

In Canada, peanut allergy is generally the one people are familiar with. Thus the image of a crossed-out peanut used to indicate that a particular candy is ‘safe,’ or that a school is an allergy-aware environment. Not super reassuring if your kid is not allergic to peanuts but is, severely, to one or more other ingredients, but this is a question for another time.

In Israel, sesame allergy is far more common than peanut allergy, either because of all the Bamba Israeli children are snacking on, which may be preventing peanut allergies from forming, or maybe because an allergy to sesame is more easily missed in countries without squirt bottles of tahini as a standard condiment. (Like celiac in Italy.)

It’s thus not surprising that Israel is on the cutting edge of treatments for sesame allergy. Treatments do exist in Canada as well, but are not covered by OHIP, and promise greater safety, not permission to dive into the hummus of your choice, not that this is everyone’s dream, allergic or otherwise.

Anyway, I am, as I may have mentioned, Ashkenazi and from New York, so bagels are the thing. There is seemingly one store in Toronto that has a sesame-free kitchen, but it’s not nearby, and appears to focus on donuts which makes me suspicious. So I make and freeze huge quantities of these, with tweaks here and there as the mood strikes (no blueberry or anything, let’s be reasonable). While I will not claim that there’s a tahini substitute out there, I will say this: home-baked bagels can be better than what you get in Toronto. And that, I will counter, is the most Jewish food of all.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz