Derived from the Arab word for "to grind," tahini is a paste made by crushing sesame seeds. It's widely used throughout the Eastern world. In the Middle East, it flavors spreads like hummus and baba ganoush and serves as a condiment for the chickpea fritter, falafel. In the Mediterranean, it's the main ingredient in the candylike confection, halvah.

In Japan, it shows up in dressings for vegetables. In China, it helps build sauces for noodles.

Pick up a jar of tahini, and you'll find a refreshing, reassuringly simple list of ingredients -- just two words: sesame seed. It's available in Asian markets or well-stocked groceries, but if you feel compelled to make your own, simply whirl raw or toasted sesame seeds in a food processor with just enough sesame oil to moisten the seed for grinding (about 1 part oil to 4 parts seed).

Aside from recipe applications, experiment with tahini to flavor and thicken salad dressings. Mix it with garlic and lemon to drizzle over veggies, or blend with mayo and fresh dill or oregano as a spread for turkey burgers.

Sesame was cultivated in Egypt, and as a flavoring, it's probably as old as the Sphinx.

Sesame oil was prized by ancients because it stubbornly resists rancidity. When refrigerated, a jar of tahini may keep long enough for you to take it to your tomb -- although solids eventually settle and you'll need to do some vigorous stirring.

Use rice vinegar, not the sweeter "seasoned" rice vinegar. Look for dried Udon noodles and fiery red chili oil in the Asian aisle of your market. These flavorful noodles are perfect with grilled chicken.

> Sesame Noodles With Vegetables

6 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

3 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste) or creamy peanut butter

2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 teaspoons minced peeled fresh ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon chili oil

1 large carrot, peeled and coarsely grated

1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped

1 1/2 cups chopped red bell pepper (about 1 large pepper)

1 (10-ounce) package dried udon noodles or whole-wheat spaghetti, cooked, drained and rinsed in cool water

4 green onions, thinly sliced

Whisk sesame oil and next 6 ingredients (sesame oil through chili oil) in a large bowl.

Add remaining ingredients; toss well to coat. Cover and refrigerate up to 3 days. Serves 8.

Recipe by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough.

Per serving: 280 calories, 15g fat, no cholesterol, 7g protein, 31g carbohydrates, 4g fiber, 160mg sodium.

Look for Relish magazine the first Thursday of each month in The Buffalo News.