Double check your recipe, because they’re not entirely interchangeable.
Tahini is one of the hottest ingredients in cooking right now. We love this all-purpose condiment in everything from sweet cakes and doughnuts to savory chicken salad and carrot soup. The ingredient originates from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, and has become readily available in the United States with the mass popularization of hummus. Made from hulled, finely ground sesame seeds, the paste becomes a light brown color with a consistency akin to natural peanut butter and a nutty, rich, and slightly bitter flavor.
Oftentimes recipes will describe tahini as sesame paste, and they’re not wrong. Tahini is a paste made from sesame seeds, but when a recipe calls for sesame paste specifically, it’s more often than not referring to a an ingredient that is notably different from your jar of prepared tahini. Take this New York Times sesame noodles recipe, for example. The sesame paste called for here is Chinese sesame paste, identified as toasted sesame seeds ground into a paste. According to Asian Ingredients: A Guide to Foodstuffs of China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam by Bruce Cost, Chinese sesame paste, sometimes called sesame butter or sesame sauce, comes from sesame seeds that are deeply toasted before grinding. This creates a deep brown paste with a luscious mouthfeel (also similar to a natural peanut butter) that is commonly used to flavor cold noodle dishes in traditional Chinese cuisine.
So how are the two sesame-based ingredients distinctly different? As noted above, Chinese sesame paste is much darker in color, due to the sesame seeds being heavily toasted to create a robust roasty flavor, reminiscent of toasted sesame oil. Comparatively, tahini can be made from untoasted, and occasionally lightly toasted, sesame seeds to create a lighter, slightly bitter, nutty flavor.
In addition, tahini is often served at restaurants in the form of a blended tahini sauce, which includes mixing tahini with lemon juice, water, salt, and garlic. This creates a flavor profile that pairs well with all sorts of Mediterranean dishes. You can find sesame paste at your local Asian market or on Amazon, but in a pinch, you can combine tahini with a little toasted sesame oil to create a similar flavor.