Not Your Grandmother’s Halva: The Humble Sesame Seed Gets a Makeover
Joyva continues almost a century of market dominance, but two new companies are turning sesame into something trendy
If Joyva is the Heinz Ketchup of sesame, the Soom Sisters, as they call themselves, want to be Pom Wonderful, the company that helped vault the exotic Mediterranean pomegranate into the health-conscious mainstream. “Sesame seeds have long been a part of American cuisine because they top hamburger buns and bagels, but they are just emerging as a super seed,” filled with protein, calcium, omega 3 fatty acids, and important minerals, said Amy. “We want to educate our customers about the health benefits, while offering a tahini more delicious than any they have tasted.”
Both Brooklyn Sesame and Soom Foods represent a new-school approach to sesame. Joyva, which imports a staggering 3 million pounds of sesame seeds each year, buys from markets in India, South America, China, and Ethiopia, among other places, and mixes them all together in the warehouse. But Amy Zitelman believes the quality of Soom Foods’ single-origin seeds is the secret behind their product. “The seeds grow in the northwest region of Ethiopia, which gets a few months of intense rain followed by many months of intense sunshine. It produces this amazing seed that is very oily, really meaty, and incredibly unique in flavor,” she said.
Shamir, meanwhile, said he “searched for a long time” to find the right bulk tahini to use in Brooklyn Sesame’s halva spread. “I ordered so many buckets that were really bad before getting the right one,” he said.
It seems that, for both companies, this obsessive attention to detail is paying off. Brooklyn Sesame regularly sells out at local retail locations like Russ & Daughters, Sahadi’s, and the popular Shmorgasburg flea market. In December, Brooklyn Sesame’s halva spread launched at a brand new Whole Foods location in Brooklyn. “I was so humbled—I swear I did not expect to be in Whole Foods in just four months,” Shamir said. “My goal now is to scale up and be in as many regional Whole Foods locations as possible.”
Soom, meanwhile, is still in the soft-launch phase of their retail tahini but is “up and running” with food service and other wholesale clients. The company recently signed a contract with the New York and Washington, D.C.-based salad chain Chop’t, which is creating a dressing based on their tahini. Meanwhile Michael Solomonov, the James Beard award-winning chef and owner of Zahav in Philadelphia, is also a dedicated Soom customer. “He’s been using us since day one,” said Amy. Within the next year, the company hopes to launch a line of tahini-based products including tahini and chocolate and tahini and honey spreads, similar to Brooklyn Sesame’s, and a savory tahini and chili sauce mixture.
Joyva, meanwhile, continues to coast as the leader in terms of production and brand recognition. “We have had a passionate following for many years because our foods bring out nostalgia and emotion in people,” Richard said. But a company cannot live on nostalgia alone. There are several case studies of other multigeneration, family-run companies in New York—like Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side, and Joyva’s Brooklyn neighbor ACME Smoked Fish—that have not just survived, but thrived by reimagining themselves for the 21st century. With the increased attention being focused on sesame, not to mention the factory’s enviable real estate in the artisanal heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there is no reason why Joyva could not be among them.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Since my first child died, I’ve tried to understand how my grandfather handled losing his entire family, and how he kept going