Tel Aviv Expats Bring Hipster Halva to New York

A sesame seed fever is taking over New York. Entrepreneurs with Israeli influence decided to take Israeli-style Halva and Tahini to the big apple adapting it to the city's stylishness.

The Forward
Michael Kaminer
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Traditional halva dessert.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
The Forward
Michael Kaminer

The seed of a business idea came to Lisa Mendelson after she and her banker husband left Tel Aviv for New York in 2014.

“I’m obsessed with tahini, and when I moved to New York it was difficult to find any that was good,” says Mendelson, who founded and sold the Israeli yogurt chain Yogo. “In Israeli kitchens, tahini’s as common as olive oil.”

A lightbulb went off for the serial entrepreneur. And Seed + Mill Co., which she opened with partners Rachel Simons and Monica Molenaar last month, was born.

The trio set up shop in Manhattan’s buzzing Chelsea Market. After a rapturous response to their tahini, Seed + Mill introduced handmade halvah in traditional and left-field flavors — think ginger, rose-oil and coffee.

The product lives up to the hype. If you’re accustomed to “Joyva in orange cans with an inch of oil on top,” as Molenaar calls it, Seed + Mill’s halvah comes as a revelation: silky, slightly flaky and non-greasy, with an intense nuttiness that balances flavor infusions beautifully.

“Halvah is something I grew up with,” says Molenaar, a refugee from corporate jobs, who met Mendelson through mutual friends. “When I was growing up, we used to go to Murray’s on the Upper West Side for bagels and lox and drop a stick of halvah in the bag. So it’s very nostalgic for me, but most people seem to know it in its commercial form.”

Teaming with Australian emigre Simons, a former broadcast executive, Molenaar and Mendelson decided to recreate tahini and halva Israeli-style — “very organic and visually appealing,” Molenaar says — but through a hip New York lens.

Seed + Mill doesn’t actually produce halvah and tahini at its store; the company’s sourcing from Israeli suppliers, who blend products to spec. The difference, Molenaar explains, starts with sesame seeds, the base for both tahini and hummus. “All of our suppliers use Ethiopian sesame seeds, the best in the world,” she says. To make tahini, seeds get cleaned, dried, roasted and peeled. Most of the nutrition comes from shells; the ratio of hull to seed determines flavor. Less shell means a smoother, cleaner taste; more shell produces a thicker, stronger essence.

Seed + Mill is launching at a time when sesame seeds are having a moment. Brooklyn Sesame helped spark the trend in 2013 with its handmade halva, which Israeli-born founder Shahar Shamir concocts with tahini, honey and almonds. Philadelphia’s Soom Foods, like Seed and Mill, uses Ethiopian sesame seeds to make its “premium” tahini. Hotspot restaurants like Balaboosta had even added halva to desserts and cocktails. But Seed + Mill has upped the game with its decadent flavors.

The trio can barely keep up with demand, especially since a New York Times rave from Florence Fabricant in January. On a recent Tuesday, while the rest of Chelsea Market geared up for business, crowds besieged the Seed + Mill Co. Counter. One customer, who said he ran a bagel shop in Massachusetts, almost implored Molenaar to let him carry their halvah.

He’s not alone. “We’ve been approached by chefs, including one who wants to do a halva board,” Molenaar laughs. It’s amazing.” For now, Seed + Mill will sprout relationships with smaller specialty stores and catering companies to grow its wholesale business.

“You know, we had to make sure this was appealing to people before we could even think about a five-year plan,” she says. “And it turns out it’s something they love.”

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