Any tourist who’s brought home aromatic bags of harissa or sweet chunks of sesame-rich halva from the aisles of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda or Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market may feel somewhat bereft when those savory mementos run out.
For now, those travel troubles are over.
Two culinary entrepreneurs are offering overseas access to the Israeli shuk, shipping boxes of artisanal Israeli foods and products to American doorsteps.
“We’re like Etsy for food,” said Mali Katz Magen, the founder of Sesame Story, referring to the online marketplace for home craftspeople, which filed its initial public offering last Wednesday.
Katz Magen, an attorney by training, started Sesame Story, a Mediterranean food marketplace, last year, sourcing her products from local markets, artisanal food producers, small kibbutz companies and organic farmers.
She offers more than a dozen kinds of tahini, olive oil, silan (date honey), Dead Sea salts, spice mixtures and grains like couscous and bulgur in Sesame Story’s marketplace, as well as ready-to-cook packets of falafel, eggs-and-tomato sauce shakshouka, rosewater-infused malabi or orchid-flower-based sahlab.
“Americans love their food boxes,” said Mali Katz.
She’s right on that count. Pre-planned and pre-prepped meals delivered to the door are what’s hot right now, offering tired, strung-out professionals easier access to homemade, fresh and healthy meals. According to one food blogger’s recent count, there are at least 13 companies doing just that right now.
Katz Magen, who decided to leave the world of corporate law world after having her first child, offers a slightly different slant to that trend.
Her company offers home cooks access to the Israeli market, and specifically to small and medium-sized producers who don’t usually reach the global marketplace.
“I want to open our marketplace to the world,” said Mali Katz. “There’s a demand for this, for things that you can only get from here.”
That’s not completely true. One pair of Israeli culinary entrepreneurs in New York, Ron and Leetal Arazi, a chef and pastry chef/food photographer, started NYSHUK, selling six kinds of homemade couscous and harissa chili paste, to the great delight of the city’s best chefs and food critics.
But Katz Magen, a member of Google Israel’s entrepreneur and mentoring program, can offer her customers a regular sweep through the shuk, delivered to their urban or suburban doorsteps.
Some of her buyers want only tahini and may order six jars of the creamy spread at a time, including one version that’s mixed with those healthy chia seeds. Others crave the squeeze jars of silan, which she offers with and without sugar.
“They need this stuff, they cook with it,” she said. “With me, you get what you order, not what I decide.”
It’s a very different model at Koofsa, Hebrew for box, the artisanal gift box concept produced by Inbal Baum, a culinary tour guide and home chef who spends much of her time in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market.
Baum, who runs culinary tours through her company Delicious Israel, offers a one-year membership at Koofsa, delivering four boxes a year — at Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Passover and in the summer. Each box is filled with five food products, chosen by Baum, and one related item, often an Israeli-designed tchotchke related to the boxed items.
For the most part, the products are those that Baum’s Delicious Israel customers saw or tasted on her shuk tours but may have been too distracted or intimidated to buy on their own in the noisy, raucous market. It’s also hard to safely transport jars of tahini or bags of spices, said Baum.
“That’s how all this started,” she said. “I started creating sampler packets for people to bring home.”
The Koofsa boxes tell a story about the artisans and the producers, said Baum, and offer an experience rather than just products. Each box includes an account of who made each product, as well as recipes using the foods from that package.
“It’s more than a product in a vacuum, it’s about a community and feeling part of the experience,” said Baum.
At $360 per year, membership isn’t cheap, and Baum has been surprised at how many members buy Koofsa for themselves and not as gifts, as she’d anticipated.
Now Baum has a long list of customers — she wouldn’t say how many – -and “a lot of” interest from England and Australia.
“People like the surprise element of it,” she said.
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