Times Will Tell

Podcast: Israelis love these natural popsicles — all year round

Paletas frozen treats were created in Tel Aviv, inspired by Mexico and bring seasonal flavors to the palate, including Hanukkah’s sufganiya

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

This week’s Times Will Tell brings us chef Nomi Zysblat, creator of Paletas, a Tel Aviv-based company that makes natural popsicles with fresh, seasonal fruit and ingredients, inspired by the Mexican version of this frozen treat that she discovered while living in New York.

We discuss the inspiration for Paletas, driven by seasonal fruits and flavors, and the timing of Zysblat’s venture just a decade ago, just as Israel was deep diving into vegan and farm-to-table trends.

Zysblat talks about what it’s like to run a small, growing business out of a small Tel Aviv factory and her expansion into stores countrywide. She also discusses the learning curve with customers, figuring out what both kids and adults want from natural, artisanal popsicles.

We chew over favorite flavors and some of Zysblat’s inspired creations, including the Sufganyeta for Chanukah, jelly doughnut popsicles, made from jelly doughnut-flavored milk and filled with homemade strawberry jam.

The following transcript has been very lightly edited.

The Times of Israel: Can you hear this noise? That’s the sound made by the blenders making paletas, handmade natural popsicles created by Nomi Zysblat, a Tel Aviv-dwelling and working chef who started making the Mexican version of these artikim, the Hebrew word for the ever-present popsicles available at every corner store that she makes with fresh, seasonal fruit and all kinds of combinations.  Hello, Nomi Zysblat, how are you?

Nomi and I are smiling at each other over our Zoom screens because I first met her when she was about to launch paletas. I think it was about a decade ago.

How long ago was it?

Nomi Zysblat: Yeah. A little more than a decade ago. Yeah. We started, I think, officially in March of 2012.

So when she first told me about them, I thought, oh, this is something I’m going to really want to be eating all the time. I live in Jerusalem. She’s in Tel Aviv. I had to import them to Jerusalem. I would import boxes of them because I love the fresh flavors, the coconut, the banana and dates, Vietnamese coffee, malabi, pistachio, halva. Slowly but surely, Paletas really went countrywide, in local pizza stores and the local makolet, the corner grocery store, not just in health food stores and higher-end spots, and not just in Tel Aviv. There are also special seasonal flavors as well, like the Sufganyeta for Chanukah, jelly donut popsicles made from jelly donut flavored milk and filled with homemade fruit jams, sometimes raspberries, sometimes strawberry. Naomi, is that correct?

Mostly strawberry, yeah. That’s what most people like, but we’re thinking of doing more flavors this year.

What do your kids think of the Sufganyeta?

They like them. They go for color more than flavor as do most kids. Our June version of the Pride Paleta, which has all the colors of the rainbow, is more of their go-to, but they each have their own favorite surprising flavor as well.

It’s like you have this ready-made test-tasting group in your home, ready to try out any flavor that you decide to create. Right?

Yeah. I mean, I use their kindergartens or schools. I basically bombard people with flavors all the time.

So let’s step back a second and tell everyone a little bit about you so that we can dive into Paletas. You are a chef and a musician. You lived for years in New York, and you discovered paletas, which are originally a Mexican concept, in a bodega, in a corner grocery store.

That’s right,. I had a $20 bill in my pocket, and I was waiting for a friend. It was a very odd day. I came to help her get divorced. I had to come and say, like, Hi, yeah, that’s who she is. It was, like, way, way in the top of, I don’t know, Spanish Harlem. And I had an hour to kill. Very odd day. And I happened to get to this main street, which looked like a huge parade, a Latin parade. It was a Sunday. It was great. Like a sunny day during the winter, a surprising kind of day. And there was so much exciting food there. I looked in my pocket, I had $20, and everything was like a dollar. I said, okay, I’m using this $20, and I’m going to taste everything. And one of the things that I happened upon was this bodega with a huge freezer filled with colorful popsicles, which I had yet to find in New York and I’d been missing them for so long. You’re used to having popsicles in Israel?

Popsicles? Let’s just say those popsicles are generally pretty artificial.

Right. But they are exciting. As a kid, you’ve got a lot of flavors and different combinations and little candies inside and stuff like that. So I was excited, the kid in me was excited to see all these colorful popsicles and then the chef in me, because at the time, I was working at a restaurant, a French Caribbean restaurant in Brooklyn, I saw these flavors that were just like, what that’s? A popsicle, like mango with chili, and one with goat’s milk and all these just really interesting things that I just decided to start tasting, and it blew my mind. And I immediately brought it the next day to my chef at the Brooklyn restaurant and said, we have to do something with this for our menu. Because we had desserts. We had really heavy desserts, and on hot days, nobody really wanted to order dessert, and so that’s how I started playing around with the idea.

But then you went to Mexico, correct?

So this whole time, I was always thinking about coming back to Israel. I had studied food as much as I could until my money ran out. And then I was working at restaurants, and I knew I wanted to start something. I was always sort of entrepreneurial. Even as a kid, I always tried new ideas, and I thought I’d eventually maybe open a cafe or a restaurant. But me being also a little bit more with my feet on the ground, I thought maybe I’d try something smaller and a little safer before I went into the big aspects of business.

The more I thought about the idea of a simple popsicle for Israel, the more I thought it was a good idea and that it had potential for kids, for adults, for teenagers. There are so many ways to go with it. Also healthy, but also fun. And the niche of nature and natural food was getting bigger and bigger. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to try. And then I would do the full thing. I would go to Mexico, get the actual real atmosphere of how the paleta is made. And so that’s what I did for about a month and a half. I went from place to place, and I spoke to everyone I could. A lot of people were very happy to show me. Some were less happy to show me. I went around the States a little bit, into places, businesses that existed in areas that had a lot of Mexicans. And I basically mostly got just the feel of it because it’s not rocket science. It’s not something super hard.

So without giving away your trade secrets, are there certain ingredients that you need to have in a paleta?

In Mexico, the classic is to divide all the paletas into two groups. There’s the paleta di agua, which is the water-based or fruit-based, and the paleta de crema, which is cream-based, so all the more ice creamy fun ones.

The treats.

The treats, right, And every area in Mexico has different ones. And, of course, the base of the palateria, just like a falafelia in Israel, is that it’s father to son or mother to daughter. It’s mostly men and they each have their own style and the fruit that they like. But it’s basically whatever’s in the market.

That’s what goes into the paletas, whatever is in season.

Yes. But it wasn’t a concept of educating people for natural food. It was what existed then. And so there they would also add food coloring, so, like, there would be a savta [grandmother] squeezing tiny little limes, like millions of tiny little limes into a bucket for hours. And then the guy would come and put in two tablespoons of green food coloring, because lime is green. Green. I learned different things that they were doing also just naturally, and it was really sweet and it was really homemade and a family business, small family businesses.

But then you came back here.

And then I came back, and I kept that same concept of dividing them into fruity and creamy. In the beginning, it was very local, very seasonal, and very posh, I would say. Like, I thought I was coming from the chef in Brooklyn, and so I wouldn’t dare have just a strawberry popsicle. It was strawberry with balsamic vinegar. Yes. Or watermelon with basil and a lot of stranger flavors. But working with the farmers’ markets at the beginning, I sensed what people wanted and what got them excited. And I basically understood that most people want to buy a popsicle from a place, from a cart that has strawberries with balsamic vinegar, but they won’t choose that one.

They’ll pick the regular strawberry.

Yeah. Or something that sounds easier on the palate, like, I don’t know, pears and wine. That sounds easier. Right. So they go for something a little interesting but safe.

So it took a while. And also in the end, you see when you have a lot of mothers buying for kids, there are certain flavors you need to have all year. So then the seasonal sort of okay, so you have your special seasonal flavors, but you have your basics that are all year round. So we also freeze our fruit so that we have fruit all year round.

It’s like Israelis who have to have their tomatoes and cucumbers. So you’ve touched on something that I wanted to ask you about, which is that Israelis have, for a long time, had this aversion to cold things during the winter months. This was a country where you could not find popsicles or ice cream during the winter, which is why people would buy Krembos.

Those are the chocolate-covered marshmallows with a cookie bottom. Now there’s all these like chef artisanal versions of them. Maybe there’s going to be a Paletas version of it, or maybe there has been, I don’t know. What’s been happening with Paletas in the winter over the last dozen years that you’ve been in business?

So the first few years, I just took off. The first few years I was just like, you know what? December, January, I’m in India or whatever.

Hilarious. That’s great.

Now we have a factory and workers and we can’t just take off. But we do all take our yearly vacation in January. Sales do go down and we do a lot more research and preparation for the next summer. We do still sell a lot of the creamy ones because ice cream is not the same as a strawberry popsicle. And we go more wild, like there were winters where we had a sort of dipping, we do like fondue kind of popsicles where we give a set with dipping sauces and toppings. And we do our tiramisu in the winter, which we don’t have time to do in the summer because it’s so time-consuming and also very sensitive to ship around. There are things you can do in the winter that you can’t in the summer, especially with very soft, you know, sensitive ingredients and more time to have fun. So our people who are excited about Paletas can still enjoy them also in the winter.

Right. And people, I think, have also learned that you can have something cold in the winter and it’s okay.

Yeah. Now that in general, people have cooling systems and heating systems, they can sit in their homes and enjoy whatever food all year round.

Your parents are from Vancouver originally, which might be why also you didn’t have as much of an issue with cold things in the winter. You were from the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem. You grew up there, which is a neighborhood that has this enclave, this community of English speakers, the people who came from English-speaking countries. And a little bit of an incubator for entrepreneurs, the community that you came from, of parents who came from English-speaking countries. I’m going to mention a famous one. Shaanan Streett, a well-known rapper. And a pair of brothers, Eli and Carmi Wurtman.

One created tech companies, the other is a concert promoter. There are a few others. And of course, there is you, the creator of Paletas, which is a pretty well-known brand in Israel. You said you wanted to get your feet wet with this small company, but now you’ve got this factory and a company. Tell us a little bit about the size of it.

Well, it started out from my small apartment in Tel Aviv, moving to a small factory down the street, actually from where we currently are, that carried us for about four years until it was too small already. And the guy from the health ministry was like, you know what, you need to expand. This is too small, I can’t do this anymore. And so we just moved. We were all coming on our bicycles from home and it wasn’t like we planned for this to be a huge factory, otherwise we would have started in advance out of the city. But we slowly, slowly took over little pieces of the street in southern Tel Aviv where we are now, our offices in one building and then we have a storage area across the street and then the factory is now two buildings down from where we were. It’s still not huge. This is not a huge company. It’s really a small, like 150 meters factory, which is big enough for us with a small freezer room.

And we do our own shipping and our own marketing. It’s all like a one-stop-shop. We don’t pull from any other independent providers. So it’s a lot of work and in the summer it’s a lot of people and in the winter it’s less. So we just go up and down as needed, like in the heat of the summer. We’ve got three drivers who transport all over the country. In the factory itself, we’ve got seven workers full-time. It’s pretty crazy, but it really varies. It depends on the day and the time of year, but we can manage to make almost 100,000 Paletas a month on a very, very busy month.

That’s a lot of Paletas. It takes a lot to take an idea that you had at a street fair in New York and turn it into this profitable working venture. Is it what you anticipated?

It’s pretty wild. At the beginning I was just really working hard and trying to make it work and explaining it a lot and doing a lot of PR and marketing for this small little idea. The original passion of mine is and still remains the flavors and the creation. And I listened to what was sort of in the zone at the time and I was really concentrated and I felt that whatever the Paletas wanted to do is where I went with them, not only flavor-wise, but also idea-wise and progressing into the company that it became eventually just like any business. And I speak to a lot of people in the food business, but also in general, a business is a business, and you start concentrating on the things that you don’t want to really deal with, from workers to taxes to kosher. Like, everything is down to paperwork and hard work. And it doesn’t matter if you’re selling a really happy popsicle or something really boring, I don’t know, some kind of machine SIM card. Yeah, SIM card or washing machine, it’s still a business. And in Israel business is hard. It really is.

And we’re at the point right now where we have to grow even more, because when you’re a small business and you’re very focused, you have very few people doing a lot of things, it’s somehow manageable. When you’re a medium-sized business, it’s very hard. The work versus profit versus the bottom line at the end of the year is difficult. And so, on one hand, it’s like, crazy that people know this and that. I go to places all over the country and people actually know what Paletas are. I’m still surprised that people know what Paletas are. And I’m really happy that I’ve created something that makes people happy and that I think is a good product. I really believe in the product. I think it’s the best popsicle that exists at the moment in the market. There are several competitors that have come into the market in the last few years, and all we can do is try to make sure we’re better because there’s different ideas, there’s all sorts of options. It makes us stay as good as we can. We also haven’t raised prices in ten years, which is pretty crazy, and people are surprised by it.

We were just at Indy Negev, which is a big festival, right? A music festival that I started selling at nine years ago. And there’s crowds that still know us from then and we sell more and more and more. And people said, it’s the same price I paid nine years ago, you know, but on the other hand, there’s so much competition and, you know, not only in the natural popsicle business, but in all the popsicles and ice creams and everything, that we can’t really afford to raise prices. We only have to just do better by buying in bulk and in our work and making more popsicles more efficient. But I’m happy to be able to tell people that we’re making the best popsicle at the same price still.

I want to switch gears a little bit and go back to where you came from, the Anglo community. About three weeks ago, you posted a picture on social media about doing Halloween with your kids and something like 500 families were participating in Halloween. And I was thinking about it because we’re heading towards Thanksgiving this week and I know you’re Canadian, so Thanksgiving isn’t necessarily what you do, but given that you’re this Israeli with this Israeli company and living this Tel Aviv life and marking Halloween, I was curious to hear a little bit about it. When did you start participating in it?

It’s crazy. Tel Aviv has become totally I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s the amount of people that are moving to Berlin and to the States and coming back from New York just in the gan of my younger son. We have four or five couples that have returned from New York, just like I did ten years ago. So they are now returning with kids. There’s really a feeling of everyone knows everything and the kids are really excited. And now with all the Internet and everything, there’s so much excitement around these holidays that maybe us Jewish people consider them Christian, but for the kids here, it’s just really cool, a fun opportunity. My kids are all excited about Christmas already. I don’t know. We’re not going to do anything, but the fact that they know about it from TV and everything, it’s become just a fun thing to do. And I think Halloween, I mean, it’s just another pooling and everyone in Tel Aviv last year it started a little bit, and now this year it just blew up. There’s these WhatsApp groups that you can connect to, and you add your home to it.

And basically we had 500 homes on a virtual map that you could click on and see. Some of them would even say if they’re gluten-free or if they’re not too scary for kids that are sensitive. Like, there was all these details about the houses and what you could find there.

Crazy. Did you hand out Paletas?

I haven’t handed out for years, I tried to push my pumpkin Paletas on the Israelis, and it wasn’t a very big success. Israelis do not do pumpkin. They’re like, that’s what I eat on couscous. Why should I eat a pumpkin on a stick? So, yeah, we handed out gummy eyes.

Yeah, that’s kind of creepy and appropriate for Halloween in Tel Aviv or anywhere, really, I would imagine. Okay, so as we finish this up, any special flavors that you’re working on that we should know about for the coming months, holiday related, that we can perhaps dream about?

Well, Hanukkah is coming up, so hopefully we’re going to do sufganyeetas again this year.

That’s actually a New York-based idea that I took that inspiration from Milk Bar in New York. He does a cornflake milk. So I was like, okay, if cornflake can be a milk, then so can a suganiya [jelly doughnut] actually, we’re open to ideas of fillings if anyone wants to add a request. We’re working on a lot of different toppings and different dips and stuff like that and different sizes. We’re working on a mini tiny little Paletas box for supermarkets soon, so we’ll see when that comes out.

Okay, we will wait for that. By the way, here’s my idea. A natural Krembo Paletas. I don’t love them personally. They’re very artificial tasting. But I don’t know, maybe there’s something there for the kind of person who would like a Krembo in a natural version that is popsicle-related.

Well, it needs to have a cookie inside. We’ll think about it. We’ll definitely think about it.

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