Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

The world is going nutty for halva

The world is going nutty for halva

Cultures from central Europe to Central Asia have adopted the chalky confection as their own

Cultures from central Europe to Central Asia have adopted the chalky confection as their own

Kylie Warner | February/March 2019

The sun never sets on halva’s sweet empire. Since the first recipe appeared during the 13th century in the “Kitab al-Tabikh”, or “The Book of Dishes”, a medieval Arabic cookbook, cultures from central Europe to Central Asia have adopted as their own this sugary, chalky confection.

Halva’s name is derived from the Arabic word for sweetmeat, and though its beige colour and dense texture remain fairly constant, the way it is made varies depending on where you are. A flour-based halva – typically composed of semolina, butter and either sugar or honey – is a gelatinous, sometimes translucent sweet that is prized in Greece, Iran, Turkey and South Asia. In other parts of the Levant or eastern Europe, the dish is more likely to be based around a nut butter, usually tahini (sesame paste), which gives it a crumbly, grainy texture. The variations don’t stop there. In Russia and Ukraine, nut-butter halva is made from locally grown sunflower seeds rather than sesame. In Turkey and Bosnia, a pulled-sugar version called pişmaniye resembles fine strands of candy floss. It is common to flavour halva, by adding anything from rosewater to pistachios, vanilla to chocolate.

The version most readily available in America is made from sesame nut-butter, brought west by Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Europe during the early 20th century. In the past you had to hunt it down in Jewish delis or in Middle Eastern grocery stores. Now it is benefiting from the popularity of other sesame-based products such as tahini and hummus, and has attracted new admirers. In trendy London and New York bakeries, halva may be used to add a nutty layer to desserts such as brownies or ice cream. For large segments of the world’s population, however, halva simply tastes of home.

To make nut-butter halva, heat a couple of cups of honey in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat until it reaches 240°F/115°C. Take it off the heat and, while it cools, add toasted nuts for texture or vanilla extract to deepen the flavour. Gently fold in two cups of warmed tahini. Pour the mixture into a deep pan to chill for 24 to 36 hours. The resulting halva may not have the crumbly texture of the store-bought version – it’s more likely to look like fudge – but it will taste just as sweet.