Tahini chocolate chip cookies, tahini pumpkin pie, tahini on toast — there’s a plethora of uses for the centuries old sesame paste, something that the founders of Seed + Mill know well.
“That’s one of the fun things that we have really embraced at Seed + Mill, that we wanted people to think beyond the traditional applications for the product,” says Rachel Simons over some tahini soft serve with sprinkled halva on top. The soft serve has the nuttiness of peanut butter, but with a lighter mouthfeel. It’s a nut-free alternative with the same amount of comfort you get from peanut butter.
Located in New York’s bustling Chelsea Market, Seed + Mill is “the only store dedicated to sesame seed products” and sells tahini soft serve and halva, along with other products like their organic tahini and sesame seed spice mixes. Simons and her business partners, Lisa Mendelson and Monica Molenaar, are figuring out ways to make something old new again, while respecting the tradition, integrity and history of where their products come from. They aren’t reinventing the wheel per se, just spinning it in another direction.
The founders met because their children all attended the same school. Simons, who had moved from Australia with her family and was contemplating a career change, had always been interested in food. “My passion has always been in food and what food represents for communities and as an opportunity for people to come together,” she says.
Simons says that it was Mendelson, who is Israeli and was well-acquainted with tahini, “could see there was an opportunity to do something new and fresh here in the US that no one had done before.” Along with Molenaar, the three of them started their business together, without really knowing if it was going to be a success or not.
But the trio was clearly onto something, and as interest grows and tahini keeps popping up in recipes and on restaurant menus, sales are increasing too.
To make their tahini, Seed + Mill uses Ethopian sesame seeds that are ground with a “very powerful mill.” Traditionally, large stones were used to grind the sesame seeds into a paste, which Simons says produces the best tahini. They’d love to do that at Seed + Mill, but had “a bit of a challenge working out how to clean” that style of mill. All the same, their mill still pumps out some pretty tasty tahini.
Since the goal is to keep the product as natural as possible, they don’t use any stabilizers, preservatives, palm oil or hydrogenated fats, ingredients you might see in other brands of tahini on the market. Similar to natural peanut butter, this means that the natural oils will separate, but a quick stir is all you need to incorporate the oil back into the paste. Simons adds that the “oil is a good thing!” It’s the mark of a natural product, and comes from a healthy fat.
The healthy fat in sesame seeds is one of the reasons Simons believes tahini has gained popularity in recent years, especially as people have embraced other healthy fat sources like avocados. It’s also a good alternative for cream and butter, making tahini a vegan substitute. Simons says you can use it instead of cream when making chocolate truffles et voila, you have a new, vegan-friendly truffle. Travel is also a factor in the surge of popularity.
“People are traveling a lot more, experiencing other cultures, and bringing those cultures and cuisines back home. We’re just not eating that very vanilla way anymore...we’re embracing a sense of adventure in food as well as travel,” says Simons.
But above all that, nostalgia and familiarity take precedence: “There’s a lot of people who grew up eating halva and tahini either with their parents and grandparents...so for example there’s a lot of the ‘old-school Lower East Side Jewish grandparents’ sort of side of halva where people have this sentimental memory of it and it reminds them of something. So when you’re eating something you want it to taste great but when it also has a memory attached to it, it just means so much more,” she says.
There’s still a lot of consumer education to be done, however. Being located in a tourist hub such as Chelsea Market means many customers might be unfamiliar with tahini and halva in particular. So Simons says they give out a lot of samples of their products, similar in the way that you’d see in an ice cream shop. For some people it may be their first time trying halva, and along with that comes many questions. Customers have asked if the halva is anything from paté, cheesecake, ice cream — and even soap.
Halva predates refrigeration days, so yes, like tahini, halva is very, very old. Simons guesses that the fact that halva didn’t need to be refrigerated is maybe why the confection has been around so long, aside from it tasting good. A mixture of tahini and sugar is mixed at a very high heat, and then flavors are added. The texture is flakey, but melts in your mouth as soon as you take a bite. At Seed + Mill, the halva looks like a tall, round cake, sprinkled on top with ingredients like coffee beans, pistachios, peanuts — whatever is inside the halva is proudly showcased on top.
Halva, like tahini, is a versatile ingredient. You can certainly enjoy a piece of sea salt and chocolate halva on its own, or crumble it up and put it on top of ice cream. Simons says it’s also good added to desserts like tahini chocolate brownies with halva baked into it. In a collaboration with Great Jones, they served the brownies straight from the cast iron skillet with ice cream on top, and everyone took a spoon and dug in. You can find the video on Seed + Mill’s Instagram account, which also includes other ways to use halva and tahini.
As the business grows, Seed + Mill is creating new products like packaged halva (soon to be on shelves at Whole Foods) and updated sesame gift boxes. But it’s clear that Simons and her business partners have a real love and connection to their products. Mendelson grew up eating tahini, Molenaar, who is a New York native, ate halva with her grandparents and Simons, who is an immigrant herself, shares a personal connection with transient families.
“Food connects both people and cultures, people take with them their family memories. The food is the common denominator,” she says.