If you’re looking for something different to tickle your taste buds, halva can be a great option for you. This Balkan/Middle Eastern dish is a sweet, dense confection that is often associated with the taste of nuts and sesame. Halva is made from ground sesame seeds, or sesame paste, honey, or syrup along with other ingredients like dried fruits, nuts, and more.
The ancient halva was said to be made from dates and milk or from sesame seeds and honey. But it has evolved into many forms and variations through the years. Derived from the Arabic word, halwa, halva has many variations per country or region, and has a colorful history as well, with each culture claiming to be the creators of this dessert. While halva originated from the Mediterranean and Central Asia region, it has also made quite an impact in the American shores.
- The first written halva recipe can be traced back to an Arabic cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh or The Book of Dishes from the 13th It also noted seven variations.
- Halva goes by many names, differing per country like helva, halawa, chalva, halwa, halvah, chalwa, alva, haleweh, halava, halua, and aluva.
- There were accounts that the Ottoman Empire’s longest-reigning sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1520 – 1566), even had a special kitchen built next to his palace where about 30 varieties of halva were produced. This place was dubbed as the helvahane or the house of halva.
- Nathan Radutzky started the halva madness Stateside. This young Jew from Ukraine took his prized halva recipe and produced his first batch in his garage in Manhattan’s Lower East Side back in 1907. He sold these straight from his back door and via pushcarts around the city. He was able to open a small factory until it became the Independent Halvah & Candies in 1940. This company still operates up to the present and was renamed to Joyva.
Halva Buying Guide
There are two common halva variations, flour-based and nut & seed-based.
Flour-based halva is made by using semolina, butter (or ghee), and sugar. This is flavored with spices and aromatics like saffron and rosewater. This gelatinous variation is commonly found in Iran, Greece, Turkey, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Nut-based halva is usually made from tahini or sesame seed paste. There are some that use sunflower seed. This crumbly version is mostly found in Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. This is also the commonly sold variation in the United States.
Halva Production & Farming in Texas
Mediterranean, Central Asia restaurants, bakeries, and delis have all had a hand bringing halva to Texas. From classic recipes to those with unique flavors and ingredients, these halvas have become one of the enjoyed sweet treats in the state. There are also producers of nut and seed pastes, like that of tahini or halva’s main ingredient, which made it a great step for them to add this confection to their menu.
Preservatives, Additives, and Chemicals
Whether it is the flour-based or nut/seed-based halva, the basic list of ingredients does not call for any preservatives or additives. However, if the halva has been upgraded to add more ingredients like chocolate, it would be a good practice to check the contents the halva before eating it. For commercially produced halvas, here are some ingredients that were used:
- Corn Syrup – Many recipes often call for corn syrup. This is basically sugar extracted from corn and processed to become this clear syrup. Many often mistakenly think of corn syrup as the dreaded high fructose corn syrup but they are totally different. To clarify, corn syrup is pure glucose, while for HFCS some of its glucose is chemically or enzymatically processed to become fructose making it even sweeter than corn syrup or the regular table sugar. While corn syrup per se does not have the negative effects that can be brought upon by high consumption of HFCS, it is still a good practice to consume products with corn syrup moderately. It is still refined sugar and may still contain traces of HFCS.
- Citric acid – This is commonly found in citrus fruits such as lemons, limes, oranges, and the likes. However, there is also a manufactured form that is used as a food additive and can also be found in cleaning agents and nutritional supplements. This manufactured citric acid is used to preserve the ingredients, to boost acidity in its contents, and to enhance the flavor. This is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA.
- Monoglycerides, Diglycerides, Triglycerides – These are forms of fatty acids and are often used as emulsifiers, which help oil and water to blend. It is commonly added to packaged and frozen foods to help extend the shelf life, prevent oil from separating from the product, and to improve its texture and stability. They can be derived from plant-based oils or animal fats, but since concentrations are usually low, these are then sourced through chemical processes. These substances are said to contain trans-fat, the artificial form of which is banned by the U.S. FDA from all foods as it has been linked to an increased risk of heart diseases and stroke. But it is said that the FDA ban does not apply to mono or diglycerides since they only contain small amounts of trans fat and are classified as emulsifiers, instead of lipids. These are also perceived as low-cost alternatives to trans-fat.
Halvas are usually sold in individually wrapped bars, or in boxes, pouches, tubs, and jars.
Halva is usually marketed as a healthier treat as it is vegan and gluten-free. It is a great source of energy from the sesame and the sugar and is also rich in Vitamin B and E, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and antioxidants. However, many have cautioned people from indulging too much as it is still high in sugar and calories, and may pose some risks. As a general rule, it’s okay to indulge but in moderation. And to make sure to have a balanced food intake.
It is recommended that the halva is stored in a cool and dry place. Once the package is opened, make sure that the cover/container must be tightly closed to prevent any air exposure to preserve the quality of the halva. It is said that the halva can have a long shelf life, some even retaining their quality for about more than 2 years from its production date. However, some have expressed their concern over the oil content going rancid.
Make your own Halva
Bon Appetit shares a recipe that takes halva to another level of decadence by adding chocolate! Now, that’s one sweet treat, indeed!
- Nonstick vegetable oil spray
- 1 ½ cups tahini
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 tablespoons black and white sesame seeds
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
- ¼ cup dried edible flowers, optional
- Flaky sea salt
- Prepare an 8 ½ x 4 ½ loaf pan and lightly coat it with the nonstick spray. Line it with parchment paper and leave about a 2-inch overhang on both the long sides.
- In a medium-sized bowl, mix the tahini, kosher salt, and 2 tablespoons of the sesame seeds.
- In a small saucepan, cook the sugar and ½ cup of water over low heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved, or for about 4 minutes.
- Place a candy thermometer into the pan. Increase heat to medium-high. Make sure to brush down the sides of the saucepan to dissolve any crystals that may form. Cook until the temperature reaches 250 degrees, or about 7 to 10 minutes.
- Immediately remove the syrup from the heat and gradually pour into the tahini mixture. Mix constantly using a spatula.
- Continue mixing until it becomes a smooth mass and starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
- Do not overmix or it will be crumbly. Scrape into the prepared loaf pan and let cool.
- Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Make sure to stir often. Remove from the heat.
- Invert the halva in a wire rack packed over a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. Pour the melted chocolate over the halva.
- Sprinkle the top with the edible flowers (if using), sea salt and the remaining sesame seeds.
- Let the chocolate set before serving, or for about 30 minutes.