Their tahini is top-shelf

Shelby (left) and Amy Zitelman make Kale-Quinoa Salad With Tahini Dressing. One of their first sales was to chef Michael Solomonov of Zahav; next goal for their Soom Foods is supermarket distribution.
Shelby (left) and Amy Zitelman make Kale-Quinoa Salad With Tahini Dressing. One of their first sales was to chef Michael Solomonov of Zahav; next goal for their Soom Foods is supermarket distribution. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)

Sisters open sesame-powered business.

Posted: February 28, 2014

Everyone has cravings. But what the Zitelman sisters have - well, that might be better described as an addiction.

Their substance of choice? Tahini, the roasted sesame butter that, they insist, is so much more than an ingredient in hummus or a drizzle for shawarma. They spread it on toast, whisk it into salad dressing, and substitute it for oil in baked goods. And, over the last eight months, they've made tahini their business, as co-owners of the sesame-powered start-up Soom Foods.

The transatlantic endeavor - it's run by Shelby and Amy Zitelman in Philadelphia and their sister, Jackie Horvitz, in Israel - peddles an elixir made from white sesame seeds grown in Ethiopia's Humera region and processed in Israel. It has already won over clients including Michael Solomonov, the chef behind Zahav and the soon-to-open hummus haven Dizengoff.

Shelby, 28, and Amy, 24, got hooked on tahini - called tehina in Israel - while spending time in Jerusalem; Jackie, 26, was living there with her husband, an Israeli named Omri Horvitz.

"As we visited Omri and his family, and tasted all the amazing dishes they were making with tehina, we were like, 'You just can't find anything like that in the States,' " Shelby said.

There was already tahini here, of course. But the paste made from the plump, oily white Humera sesame seeds - now the gold standard in Israel - is a different grade of product: rich, nutty, and smooth. "We saw the opportunity, not to bring a new product to market, but to educate the consumer about...what we think is the highest-quality tahini on the market," she said.

Omri was already in the tahini business, importing the seeds from Ethiopia for use by restaurants across Israel. Last year, the siblings decided to partner with him to bring the product to the United States, under the moniker Soom ( soomsoom is Hebrew for sesame).

They brought in samples; set up meetings including one with the chef for a maker of private-label salad dressing, who put in their first big order. "That's when we realized it could actually be a business," Amy said. They found a warehouse in North Philadelphia, and received their first container last April. Then, they faced the real test: Bringing the tahini to Solomonov.

"It really reminded him of Israel. He gave it to chefs in the back, and they all noticed the difference," Amy said. "So he looked at me and looked at the chef and was like, 'Cancel our other tehina.' "

Solomonov, who goes through almost 100 pounds of tahini each week at Zahav alone, said the difference was evident. "It's just really robust and delicious," he said. "I've had bad tehina before, obviously, and this stuff is really nice and smooth, and really nutty."

Solomonov's seal of approval was a springboard for Soom. "Other chefs in the city hear that he's using our tahini and are very receptive to trying it," said Amy. Since then, they've sold about 18,000 pounds of tahini to restaurants including Citron and Rose in Merion Station, which tops its chocolate pudding cake with tehina ice cream, and Chop't, a salad chain with 25 locations in New York and Washington, D.C., that uses it in harissa-tahini dressing.

Soom is also on the shelves at Weaver's Way, and Green Aisle (where it sells for $10 for 17 ounces). Vegan consumers are buying it for the creamy consistency and protein it adds without animal products.

To fuel interest, the sisters have been giving jars to bloggers and chefs to help build a database of tahini-based recipes. Those will go online this spring, as part of a relaunch with new packaging and flavors. The sisters are developing a honey-flavored tahini and looking into a chocolate variation.

After that, they have more goals: Get a distributor and land this product on supermarket shelves. And, just as important, open their own facility in Ethiopia and cultivate a farming cooperative there. (Without a plant of some sort on Ethiopian soil, foreigners must buy through a commodities exchange.)

In the meantime, the sisters are busy experimenting. At farmer's markets and food shows, they whip up the traditional tahini dip: tahini, water, lemon juice, garlic, and salt, to be served with chips or raw vegetables. They've swirled it with sriracha, and used it to marinate baked chicken.

Recently, a friend from Israel got them hooked on date-tahini-and-nut balls. "We fell in love with them," Amy said. "They're always in our freezer at home."

The way some cooks feel about butter - that it can make anything taste better - that's how the sisters feel about tahini.

Audrey Huntington, 24, Soom's sales manager, knows the feeling. Lately, she's hooked on tahini, too.

"I knew what it was, and I used it from time to time, but it wasn't a product I used every day," she said. "Now, I use it every day."


Kale-Quinoa Salad with Tahini Dressing

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 bunch kale (about 1 pound)

1/2 cup raisins

1/4 cup sunflower seeds

1 cup quinoa, rinsed

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/3 cup tahini

1/3 cup water

Juice of 1 1/2 lemons

1 1/2 tablespoons agave nectar

1 garlic clove, minced

Sea salt and pepper to taste

1.   In a small saucepan, combine quinoa, garlic powder, pinch of salt, and 11/2 cups of water. Cook for 15 minutes or until water is absorbed.

2.   Wash kale, remove stems, and cut into thin slices.

3.   In a small bowl, whisk together tahini, water, lemon juice, agave nectar, fresh garlic, salt and pepper.

4.   Combine kale, quinoa, raisins, sunflower seeds, and dressing, and mix together. Refrigerate for 30 minutes and sprinkle with extra sunflower seeds before serving. - Soom Foods

Per serving: 281 calories; 10 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams sugar; 11 grams fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol; 49 milligrams sodium; 7 grams dietary fiber.


Date, Tahini and Nut Balls

Makes 40 (or about 20 servings)

1 cup dried dates

1/2 cup walnut pieces

3/4 cup coconut flakes

1/8 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup tahini

1.   Blend dates in food processor and put in a large mixing bowl.

2.   Blend walnuts in food processor and then add them to the bowl with the dates.

3.   Mix walnuts, dates and 1/2 cup coconut flakes. Then add tahini and cocoa powder to the mixture, stirring until ingredients are thoroughly incorporated.

4.   Pour remaining coconut flakes onto a plate.

5. Scoop a tablespoon of the date mixture into your palm, and roll into a small ball. Then roll each ball in coconut to coat. Repeat with remaining mixture.

7.   Chill in the refrigerator, covered in wax paper until ready to eat.

- Soom Foods

Per serving: 63 calories; 1 gram protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams sugar; 4 grams fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 8 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.


Vegan Butternut Squash Mash

Makes 6-8 servings

1 butternut squash (about 3 pounds)

1/2 cup tahini

1/2 cup light coconut milk

Salt to taste

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

2. Peel squash and cut into 1-inch cubes, and place in boiling water until soft (about 10 minutes).

3. Drain and return squash to the pot. Add 1/2 cup tahini and 1/2 cup light coconut milk, and mash until smooth.

- Amy Zitelman

Per serving: 178 calories; 4 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 15 grams fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 122 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.


Hummus

Makes about 11/2 cups.

1 16-ounce can of chickpeas, drained, liquid reserved

¼ cup tahini

3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 cloves garlic

3/4 teaspoon salt

1. Combine ingredients in food processor and puree.

2. Add liquid from chickpeas or water and seasoning as needed. Serve with raw vegetables or pita chips.

- Soom Foods

Per serving (based on 1/4 cup): 307 calories; 15 grams protein; 47 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams sugar; 7 grams fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 357 milligrams sodium; 14 grams dietary fiber.


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

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