Date syrup is a common ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking. In Israel, where it’s known as silan, the molasses is used in everything from sweet pastries to savory entrees. “It’s everywhere,” declared an enthusiastic Saveur writer in 2011, after returning from a trip. Despite its ubiquity overseas, the date honey has yet to become a staple in American kitchens.
But it soon might. Silan is the next product Soom Foods is bringing to market, and if anyone can make a formerly exotic ingredient the new must-have item for U.S. chefs, it’s the Soom sisters.
The Soom sisters are Amy, Shelby and Jackie Zitelman — the powerhouse team of young women behind Philly-based Soom Foods, maker of Soom tahini.
If you don’t know Soom tahini by name, you probably do by taste: the brand of sesame paste is one of the key ingredients of the famous hummus served at Zahav and Dizengoff, and the main driver of the vegan shakes at Goldie.
“Soom is revolutionizing the tehina business in America,” Zahav’s Michael Solomonov recently told Food & Wine.
Solomonov is far from alone in his embrace of the Zitelmans’ product. Five years after launching as a startup, the sisters have successfully gotten their tahini onto restaurant menus in 18 cities across the country, and had it written up in cookbooks and magazine articles across the globe.
It was an uphill climb, considering that when they started, few American chefs even realized they had options when it came to deciding what tahini to buy.
“Nobody had ever come to market and said, ‘What flavor profile are you looking for in your tahini? Where do the sesame seeds come from?’” explained Amy, who handles sales for the business.
Amy recalled one of her first sales visits, back in 2015, to chef Scott Schroeder at Hungry Pigeon. “I didn’t know tahini was supposed to taste good!” the chef exclaimed after sampling Soom’s product. He placed an order on the spot.
“The tahini is the best I’ve had,” Schroeder confirmed to Billy Penn, some three years later. “It’s the only tahini we use.”
Some of Soom’s popularity can be chalked up to quality of product. The Zitelmans make sure their manufacturer, who is based in Israel, where Jackie lives, uses only white humera seeds from Ethiopia. The sisters attribute their tahini’s rich, nutty flavor and ultrasmooth creaminess to being selective about this base ingredient.
But the sisters’ success is also due to their personalities, and dedication to customer service. “I love them,” Schroeder effused. “They are the nicest people on Earth.”
The one-two punch of quality product and top-notch service makes it possible — even likely — that Soom’s silan will explode, just like their tahini has.
If you haven’t had the chance to cook with silan before, it’s a brilliant addition to a huge variety of recipes. It can be drizzled over fish or meat after grilling, used to caramelize roasted vegetables, spread over peanut butter (or tahini) in sandwiches, whipped into dressings or used as a topping for ice cream or yogurt. Its flavor is more complex than maple syrup, and its texture is smoother than cane molasses.
“There are so many awesome ingredients that are used by cultures that are understood or underappreciated [in the U.S.] right now,” said Shelby, explaining that the sisters are always on the lookout for new ideas. “Whether in the Middle East or elsewhere.”
So far, all Soom product launches have been successful — sometimes too successful.
That was the case in 2015, when the Zitelmans had the idea to create a line of refrigerated tahini dips to be sold in grocery stores. Whole Foods picked it up, as did several other chains. But when they took a step back and assessed what would take for their tiny operation to keep up with a national retail contract, they realized the challenge was next to impossible.
“So we called everybody that had committed to our product,” Amy recounted with a grimace, “and we said, ‘We’re actually discontinuing this line, sorry.’”
After that, Soom pivoted to focus solely on chefs instead of retail sales, and the business really took off. Revenue has doubled each of the past two years, and the company recently hired a second full-time salesperson.
So the sisters are betting the time is right to introduce another product. Early silan tests with some chefs at the beginning of the year went well. One of the only suggestions offered as feedback was to make sure the date syrup was clearly branded with the Soom name.
“They told us that was important,” Amy said. “Maybe the value we’ve created in our brand name will translate beyond tahini.”
It’s a good bet. Advised that Soom was about to introduce the silan, Schroeder, of Hungry Pigeon, became indignant he’d so far been missing out.
“Ask Amy,” he demanded to know, “why I haven’t been told about date syrup?!?”