Jessica Halfin
October 18, 2017, Updated October 19, 2017

At Seed + Mill in New York’s trendy Chelsea Market, the writing is literally on the wall. There you will find a definition of the well-known Middle Eastern confection, halva, and the tahini (sesame paste) that’s the main ingredient.

It is an inviting introduction to Americans who may be unfamiliar with the two foods in this “sesame concept” shop.

Israeli-born Lisa Mendelson, Australian transplant Rachel Simons and New Yorker Monica Molenaar are bringing these Israeli staple products to the American market, and putting their own distinct twist on things: tahini paste made of toasted sesame seeds freshly milled on site, in front of the customer’s eyes.

To the delight of those who have a nostalgic pull toward all things tahini, these women have made halva into a worthy gift-giving opportunity, and foodies from all over the world are taking notice.

The Seed + Mills partners in their store in New York City. Photo by Scott Matthews

Thanks to Seed + Mill, tahini — an ingredient thought by the modern Westerner to be just a humble ingredient in hummus — has evolved into beautifully crafted slabs of exotically flavored halva candy, a modern update on a product that has been valued for centuries in many countries.

The word “halva” is derived from the Arabic word for “candy” but those who have walked through Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market or Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market may recognize where the women have drawn their inspiration. There you pass such establishments as The Halva Kingdom, which boast some 100 different flavors in a mouthwatering buffet of confectionary delight.

Pistachio halva from Seed + Mill in New York. Photo by Erez Ben Shachar

However, the women of Seed + Mill pride themselves on coming up with their own unique variations, such as matcha rose, white chocolate-raspberry and salted caramel, meant to tickle the American palate.

Other products on offer at Seed + Mill include jarred gourmet tahini paste, sesame-infused spices and tahini-goat’s milk ice cream (available for delivery if you are lucky enough to live close by). They can be purchased in store or ordered online.

Mendelson saw an opportunity to bring products like tahini and halva — so beloved in her homeland — to a new audience in the United States. Seed + Mill’s plan is to make these products more accessible to consumers who haven’t previously tried them and to help showcase tahini’s taste, health benefits and versatility in cooking.

Healthy and tasty

Simons reiterates that their staunch popularity has as much to do with healthfulness as it does with uniqueness, thanks to tahini’s nutrient-rich composition. The business partners feature an entire gallery of recipes on their website.

“We are seeing an amazing response from the vegan, healthy, detox community who recognize how healthy and tasty tahini is and are substituting tahini for butter, milk or cream. We also bring in a community of adventurous foodies who are just excited to try something new that they haven’t seen before in the US. We spend a lot of time educating and inspiring our customers both in the store and online.”

Seed + Mill’s store in Chelsea Market. Photo by Scott Matthews

It can be difficult to source tahini outside of the Middle East, so the word has gotten out about Seed + Mill. Just recently, British-Israeli chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi sought out the brand to make a recipe for an American demo of his newly released dessert book, Sweet.

“We were very excited! Ottolenghi’s halva brownie recipe is a personal favorite of mine,” said Simons.

What is it about halva that keeps newbies and those with fond memories coming back for more? Simons suspects it could be a few things.

“People love the fact that it is a ‘better for you’ treat. Of course, halva, is a dessert that contains sugar – but the tahini component in halva makes it a very nutrient-dense dessert with a lot of calcium, protein, magnesium and other vitamins and minerals.

“Tahini is considered a ‘good fat,’ which makes it a better choice if you are deciding to have something sweet. It is also gluten-free, vegan, etc., so it ticks a lot of boxes for those with restricted diets. And it has a great ‘melt in your mouth’ texture that people who are trying it for the first time really appreciate,” says Simons.

Seed + Mill tahini and goat-milk ice cream and jarred tahini. Photo by Erez Ben ShacharMatthews

To get started on making your own dishes using tahini and halva, visit the website or try this recipe for Seed + Mill’s vegan halva rocky-road bars.

Halva Rocky Road Bars

1 cup melted dark chocolate
1 cup organic tahini
1/2 cup salty-sweet popcorn
1/2 cup halva chopped into cubes (any flavor; we like pistachio)
1/2 cup roasted peanuts, macadamia, pecans or walnuts

Optional additions: dried fruit (cranberries, dates or sultanas), marshmallows, gummy bears or Pop Rocks

Place all ingredients in a bowl and gently combine (careful not to crumble the halva too much). Pour mixture into a loaf tin, lined with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm. Remove and slice into bars, squares or any shape you like.

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