PHOTOS BY KATIE NOBLE
How Sweet It Is; A Needham baker is changing how Americans view—and enjoy—tahini
It took moving 7,000 miles and three flights from home—to a place where familiar kosher and Middle Eastern ingredients were next to impossible to find—for Hila Krikov to find a new passion in the flavors of her childhood.
Born and raised in Israel, Krikov and her husband had bought land in a kibbutz to build a house. “I thought we will never leave this place,” Krikov said. “We will raise our kids here. They’ll be playing outdoors on grassy fields.”
However, Krikov—who had spent more than 10 years building a successful career in fashion design after graduating from Shenkar College for Engineering and Design—and her husband found themselves working around the clock. “He used to travel a lot to Texas” for his job, says Krikov. So in 2009, the couple decided to move with their then-three children to the United States so they could all be together. (“We were going to take a break for two years—that was nine years ago.”)
Their new life on the High Plains in Lubbock, Texas, proved somewhat of a shock. “It was like living on another planet,” Krikov says. “We were in the middle of the desert, in the middle of nowhere. And the food was so different; I really missed my homeland flavors.”
Her furious-paced fashion career on hold, Krikov for once had the benefit of some free time in which to cook and bake. She began experimenting in her kitchen, trying to recapture the tastes and textures of the homemade goods her mother and grandmother always on hand, including baklava and halvah, a kind of fudge made from sesame paste.
However, it wasn’t exactly easy. “Today you can buy everything on Amazon,” Krikov says, “but nine years ago, I couldn’t find ingredients.” So her family added grocery shopping as an agenda item for their road trips around the American South. “Every time we reached a big town or city, we’d look for a kosher or Middle Eastern grocery store.”
In addition to the road tripping, Krikov found another unexpected perk living as a stranger in a strange land: “In Israel, we shared the same food and culture as our Muslim neighbors, but we rarely actually befriended them. But it was easy to actually become best friends with Muslims in Texas by talking about food.” She took some Turkish cooking classes at a local community center and found further inspiration in how Turkish cuisine was so different than Israeli food, despite using many of the same flavors.
Then three and a half years ago Krikov and her family followed her husband’s job to the Boston area. She was happy to find that “here people really care about what they eat.” Her family loved entertaining the new friends they met in Massachusetts, and Krikov served the Israeli baked goods she’d taught herself to make while living in Texas: breads and cookies made with tahini, a sesame-seed paste.
“I received really nice feedback,” Krikov recalls. “The Americans said, ‘Wow, what is this? It’s so good.’ And even Israeli people seemed surprised. But, really, it was nothing new. I ate tahini cookies all the time when I was a little girl.” Krikov realized that people in the United States don’t understand tahini’s full potential as a food. “They know nothing about it outside the context of hummus or perhaps as the sauce you drizzle over falafel,” she says.
If you mix the oily paste with water, tahini hardens to a dough-like texture, which Krikov uses to make a beautifully textured, aromatic, dark gluten-free bread as well as other baked items. And so the idea for her business, Sweet Tahini, was born. She began developing her full complement of recipes, including both vanilla and chocolate soft tahini cookies, tahini date rugelach and tahini honey baklava. She capitalized on tahini’s bittersweet nutty flavor and rich creamy texture to create tahini chocolate truffles and spreads featuring tahini mixed with either chocolate, dates or carob—each so delicious they can be eaten with a spoon straight from the jar.
And, just as important, Krikov drew on her years in the fashion industry to figure out how she could best package, label and sell her products. After three months of working to secure all the necessary permits to bake out of her residential kitchen in Needham, Krikov finally arrived at her first farmers market.
“All my family came with me to help,” she recalls. “It was an awful day—raining and cold—and I thought no one was going to show up. But it was an instant success. I give samples—and when people tasted them that day, they bought my products.”
These days, Sweet Tahini is at the Roslindale, Brookline, Needham and Wayland farmers markets. Krikov also will sell her wares straight from her oven in Needham on afternoons before a market day. She feels that farmers markets work well for her business model. “I like that I receive customer feedback immediately,” she says, noting that this helped her realize that people wanted to be able to buy something to enjoy on the spot with a cup of coffee—leading to the creation of her tahini almond muffins.
Sharing samples—and her cuisine’s story—with customers also is key, given the novelty of how she’s using tahini and that carob syrup, one of the natural sweeteners she uses, is unfamiliar to many Americans. “If you grew up in New England, you’ve probably never seen a carob tree,” Krikov says. “But in Israel, they’re everywhere. When I was growing up, I used to find pods on the playground and I would break them open to squeeze out the meat inside. I carry a photo of a carob tree so I can share this with customers.”
The demand for Sweet Tahini products has Krikov thinking about moving from her kitchen to a commercial kitchen as well as how to package her products differently so they can be sold in stores. (“The bread freezes really well, so I think packaging it sliced could be a great grocery-freezer option.”) But at heart, Sweet Tahini will remain a truly a small family business. “Everyone helps,” says Krikov. Her two daughters, age 15 and 7, and two sons, 13 and 10, help assemble the bakery boxes and label them with stickers. “I did the graphic design for the labels and built my website myself,” says Krikov. “I think I was probably a better fashion designer than I am a cook or baker, but I’m happy to really be using everything I learned from that career and my creativity in this new business.”
Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers food, science and animals. You can find her at genevieverajewski.com.