Needham’s Hila Krikov moved from Israel to Texas for her husband’s job, leaving a career in fashion to raise four kids. She honed her home-baking skills, creating a new stateside community through food. When the family moved to Needham, she launched Sweet Tahini at farmers markets, selling sweets made with tahini—thick, nutty sesame paste usually found in hummus. Her date rolls, made with dried fruits and nuts, are especially popular for Tu BiShvat, beginning this year on Jan. 16.
“It’s great timing because Tu BiShvat is a holiday that traditionally we eat dried fruits and we celebrate the new year for the trees. This is the time in Israel that the trees are starting to emerge from their winter sleep,” she says.
Tell us about your shop!
I built it on the farmers market platform. I was able to meet my first customers face-to-face. We chatted, and they heard my story. And I found out that, for many people, by purchasing my product, it was a way to connect to the Middle East or to Israel—whether they are Jewish or not.
Tell us about the food.
This is very transparent, minimally processed, very simple cuisine. This is another reason people were curious about the ingredients; many of the ingredients I’m using, they’re like biblical ingredients—dates and figs. It was another reason people were attracted to my products.
Why did you decide to start a food business?
We moved from Israel to Texas 12 years ago. We moved to a small town in Northwest Texas. And, obviously, it was very hard to find Middle Eastern food. Back in Israel, I was actually a fashion designer by profession, and I worked in the fashion industry. I really loved it. I still miss it. But my husband’s company acquired a company in Texas, and all their activity moved to the U.S. He used to travel a lot from Israel to Lubbock, the town where we lived. And it’s three flights, 24 hours door-to-door. Back then, we had three young kids, and I was working around the clock because the fashion industry is a very stressed industry. So we made the decision to move.
Lubbock was a culture shock, but actually we learned to like it. But, of course, we really missed the food in Israel, the family, the friends. There was no Israeli or Jewish community in Lubbock, so we had to build ourselves a community of friends from scratch. We liked to entertain; we were doing a barbecue every weekend, but we did it our way—Middle Eastern skewers, chopped Israeli salad, serving hummus as an appetizer, baking pizza, having halvah and tahini cookies for dessert. We made it our way and had people coming over every weekend. After five years in Texas, we moved to Needham, and I started to sell my tahini products at the local farmers market. And it took off.
This was in 2017; people were still asking me at the market, “So, what is it? What is it made of?” I used to tell everybody: This is a key ingredient in hummus. Four years later, right now, everybody knows what tahini is. We know you can eat it in cookies and brownies and outside of the context of, say, hummus. Right? But back then, it was very strange. And, actually, many people were telling me, “We grew up eating halvah.” Halvah is a Middle Eastern confection that’s made with tahini and sugar, but nobody made the connection!
Tell us about what you want customers to know about your business and your story. Especially right now, with COVID, people are eager to support small businesses and are maybe cooking more at home and want to treat themselves a little bit.
As I mentioned, I started the business at farmers markets. Many times people asked me questions about Israeli food because they knew I was Israeli: “What type of tomatoes should we use for our shakshuka? Do you have a good recipe for hummus?” So, I started my website. I offer classic Israeli recipes and I started to teach cooking classes.
COVID shut down all these activities, but I did do a very successful outdoor cooking class that was all about cooking on fire. I did it in my backyard, around the fire pit. We baked pizzas on the fire, roasted root vegetables and eggplant, and made dessert on the grill. It was a very Israeli experience, an authentic experience that people really liked. I have a very spacious backyard, so people were able to come and eat at a safe distance.
I have several lines of products. I’m very glad that date-based products became very popular in the west, like energy balls and date bars and stuff like that. In the Middle East, we eat dates not because they’re sweet in taste, but also because they have so many nutrients and are natural. Dates in the Middle East have thousands of years of history. I’m also glad that the western world discovered the benefits of using dates in products. It’s a natural sugar and it’s just such a great product. My date rolls are long rolls that you can slice. You can serve them on a cheeseboard or just for a dessert with coffee or tea. This is a product for when you really want to taste the flavor of the Middle East and enjoy it at home. It’s just good ingredients, with no added sugar.
I also have a line of tahini-based chocolates. It’s a fudge-like product that’s soft because tahini is the main ingredient. You can open a box of this chocolate and share it with family or friends. This is, again, the concept of the Middle East: Food is not just to nourish. It’s also for socializing and enjoying together. Take a break, sit down and enjoy good and nutritious food with friends and family.
You’re self-taught. You had this fashion career, and this is something new you learned how to do on your own. That’s so amazing.
During our stay in Texas, I was a stay-at-home mom. But I mentioned that we used to entertain a lot. Back then, it was very hard to find ingredients because Amazon didn’t sell them. Today we can buy everything on Amazon, but it wasn’t like that then. We did a lot of road trips in Texas. Everywhere we traveled, we were looking for kosher groceries. We were searching Google for kosher grocery stores because we knew that over there, we would find Israeli ingredients from home. And we just stocked up and brought it home to our kitchen.
I spent a lot of time in the kitchen improvising recipes, trying new recipes all day, improvising with developing ingredients. I always liked to cook and bake, and I’m coming from a family where my mom and my grandma were great bakers. I am a home cook. I know I’m not a professional cook, and this is something I’m actually proud of. Learning from me in my cooking class, it’s the same as you’d learn to make from your mother, from your grandmother, because you are not learning from a professional cook. And my recipes are very detailed, written in a way for someone who has no experience cooking and needs to know everything. I’m not a professional recipe-writer; I’m just writing the way I learned how to cook.