This Middle Eastern Condiment Needs to Be in Every Pantry. Here’s Why.

updated May 24, 2019
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If you listen to the three co-founders of Seed + Mill (Rachel Simons, Lisa Mendelson, and Monica Molenaar) wax poetic about tahini, even just for a minute, I guarantee that you’re going to spend the rest of the day drizzling the contents of one of their jars of emulsified sesame seed paste over every single thing you eat that day. That’s what happened to me when I visited the tahini and halva experts at their flagship Chelsea Market outpost in New York City.

Their store is the real-life version of their drool-worthy Instagram feed, where they sell goat milk soft-serve with crumbled halva and a tahini drizzle, various flavors of their beloved halva made in Israel, jars of herbed and plain tahini, and custom spice blends like sesame za’atar. I spent some time with Rachel learning about all the delicious (yet overlooked) ways we should use tahini, how they come up with new halva flavors, and what’s next for the artisanal shop. Read on to find out what’s in the works for 2019.

Since you started Seed + Mill in 2016, have you noticed a rise in popularity of tahini and halva?

The goal for us has always been to make tahini (which has been a staple ingredient in the Mediterranean for thousands of years) a staple pantry ingredient in the U.S. If you open up any American pantry, you’ll find mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, but in the Middle East, there is no pantry without tahini. So when we opened, we wanted to start showing people what you can do with sesame seeds. The starting point is to grind them into tahini, which is the main ingredient of halva. Since we started we definitely have noticed more people talking about tahini, but we hope to see the category continue to grow. I hope it’s not just a trend but more of a sustainable thing.

What flavors do your customers love most?

We started out with just halva originally, and the flavors definitely evolve based on what works and what doesn’t. The best-seller by far is pistachio. It’s just this classic halva that ties together the Middle Eastern roots and heritage. The combination of sesame seeds and pistachio really sells. Most of our chocolate flavors do really well too.

Any that didn’t go over as well?

We’ve had our successes but also a few big flops. I wanted to make chia seed halva because I was obsessed with the idea that it’s also a seed — that and the fact that this is New York, people are healthy, they want seeds, you know? But the chia seeds were a big fail. Matcha didn’t sell well either, and I thought that would be a hit!

What’s one thing you wish people knew about tahini?

When we opened, if people even knew what tahini was, they only associated it with baba ganoush, falafel, or hummus. We love that people have those associations — and say, yes, keep putting it in your hummus — but did you know you can also put it in brownies, chocolate truffles, smoothies, hot chocolate, pumpkin pie? We are really excited to see people use tahini in a more versatile way.

We’ve built a really big following in the vegan community because tahini acts as a cream substitute, and can make dishes nice and rich if you can’t have cream, milk, or butter. People are turning more towards plant-based sources of nutrition, and tahini really ticks that box. In every serving, you get eight grams of plant-based protein. There’s probably not a day that goes by where I don’t have tahini in something.

Can you walk us through a day’s worth of tahini?

I would start with a smoothie. You can make a really indulgent one with chocolate, banana, and tahini, and if you’re looking for something healthier, you can make a greens smoothie with kale, frozen banana, and tahini. For lunch I would do a salad with tahini green goddess dressing or a bowl with grains, roasted veggies, and tahini drizzle. As an afternoon snack, you can make sweet potato fries with tahini or tahini-date bliss balls. For dinner, I’ll often make sheet pan veggies with roasted lemon, olive oil, and tahini.

What new and exciting things does Seed + Mill have planned for 2019?

I haven’t announced this to the world yet, but although we started out with sesame seeds, we didn’t call ourselves “Sesame + Mill.” We called ourselves Seed + Mill. There are all sorts of other seeds that have these amazing nutritional profiles that provide good fat, protein, and are more allergy-friendly than, say, nuts. So we are starting to think about how we can expand to new products with other seeds. We are actually about to launch a new halva made with a new seed: pumpkin seed! It’s a combination of sesame and pepitas, which is just amazing. I’m really excited about it.