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
Halva is a curious food. The Middle Eastern confection, which is most commonly made from sesame seeds mixed with honey or sugar, is not exactly sweet—at least not by American standards—but it’s certainly not savory either; its texture is one part cotton-candy airiness, one part dense fudge. But for those people who love it, and I count myself among their ranks, these contradictions are precisely what makes halva so beguiling and addictive.
Nathan Radutzky must have felt the same way. When the Jewish immigrant from Kiev, Ukraine, landed in America in the early 20th century, he founded a company that would ultimately become Joyva—the oldest and largest producer of halva in the country. For nearly a century, Joyva has been this country’s leader in all things sesame, churning out vast quantities of halva and tahini year after year. But two new startup companies—Brooklyn Sesame and Soom Foods— entered the market this year. And together they might just change the way we think about the humble sesame seed.
Each morning on an industrial street in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the Joyva warehouse, all 120,000 square feet of it, creaks to life. Inside, vast oceans of tiny sesame seeds are soaked, hulled, roasted, and milled into unctuous slicks of tahini. In another room, workers stand over enormous copper bowls, using paddles to mix that tahini with sugar, corn syrup, egg whites, and vegetable oil until the mixture takes on the distinctive taste and texture of Joyva’s signature product, halva.
The company has been producing the nutty confection since 1907 and today ships more than 35,000 pounds of the stuff each week to supermarkets, Middle Eastern and health food shops, and stores that cater to kosher customers. Overseeing production are Richard and Milton Radutzky, the grandson and son, respectively, of Joyva’s founder. “I have been working here for 25 years, but my dad, who is 91, still comes to work every day,” said Richard.
Joyva is also known for its chocolate-covered jelly rings and marshmallow candies (both iconic Passover desserts) and crunchy sesame sticks. The company also packages a portion of its raw tahini as is, selling it retail in small tins and by the drum-full to restaurants that use it to make hummus and other dishes. But the company’s heart and soul is halva—plain sesame, flavored with vanilla or marbled with cocoa, or swathed in a layer of chocolate and crushed almonds.
Halva, which derives from the Arabic word hilwa (sweet), is primarily known as a Middle Eastern confection—many Jewish American travelers have fond memories of sampling slivers of halva sliced from huge bricks stacked in the outdoor markets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. In a nod to the dessert’s origins, Joyva’s logo features an arguably dated sketch of a mustachioed Turkish man wearing a turban.
The food eventually made its way to Eastern Europe and Russia, where sunflower seeds replaced sesame as the primary ingredient. In Song of Brooklyn: An Oral History of America’s Favorite Borough, by Marc Eliot, Milton Radutzky explained how his father immigrated to New York in 1904 with a recipe for halva in tow: “He was in the grain business there [in Kiev], so that’s how he knew about sesame and sesame seeds,” he told me.
In 1907, Nathan began selling halva from pushcarts and out of a small storefront on Orchard Street on New York’s Lower East Side. A few years later he and his wife moved their halva business, then called Independent Halva and Candies, Inc., to Brooklyn, where they have operated as a family-owned business ever since. “Many big candy companies have tried to buy us out through the years, but we wouldn’t go for it,” Milton said.
Considering it would be decades before the health food movement of the 1960s began touting tahini and hummus (which contains tahini) as healthy vegetarian protein sources, Joyva’s focus on sesame seeds was remarkably ahead of its time. For many people who grew up in New York in the mid-20th century, Joyva provided their first taste of halva. “We get calls from lots of people who say, ‘Oh my God, I grew up in Brooklyn, where can I find your candy? I miss my childhood!’ ” said Richard.
In recent decades, the American market has seen an increase of halva imported from places like Lebanon, Israel, and India. And there are a solid handful of domestically made and imported tahini brands on store shelves. But Joyva remains the front-runner. “We are like the Heinz Ketchup of sesame,” Richard said.
In the last year, however, the sesame world welcomed two new, promising companies. The first is Brooklyn Sesame, a company founded by a former dancer and Israeli-native named Shahar Shamir who makes a product he calls halva spread.
Traditionally halva is cooked and kneaded until it can be formed into solid, sliceable bricks. Shamir’s softer take on the confection combines fresh tahini with honey and a variety of mix-ins ranging from roasted sesame seeds and pistachios to raw almonds, black caraway seeds, and toasted coconut flakes. He also makes a cocoa sea-salt version, which has a Nutella vibe without the extra fat or additives. “Halva spread is a fun twist on an Old World food,” Shamir said. “People who already know halva are very curious about it, and those who don’t are excited to find something new.”
The second company is Soom Foods. Founded by three sisters Shelby and Amy Zitelman and Jackie Horvitz, originally from Maryland, it produces tahini made from an Ethiopian variety of sesame seeds called white humera. Horvitz’s husband Omri is a native Israeli who has worked in tahini and sesame distribution for nearly a decade and turned his new in-laws on to these high-quality seeds, as well as to unconventional uses for the Middle Eastern paste. “In the states you would rarely see people spreading tahini like peanut butter, or using it instead of oil in baking,” said Amy Zitelman. “But we see so much more potential to tahini than just hummus.”
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.
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