Halva: A Sweet of Worldly Delight
Halva is a simple dessert of almost universal appeal. Although indigenous to the Judeo-Arab regions of Asia, halva became a familiar treat in Europe and the United States, following the Muslim and Jewish diasporas as they spread throughout the world. It is known in variations throughout West, Central, and South Asia, for it can be adapted to include local ingredients that are available in large supply.
Some of the earliest recipes for halva appear in medieval Arab cookbooks such as the Kitab al-tabikh (known as The Book of Cookery), written by Muhammad b. al-Hasan b. Muhammad b. al-Karim, a 13th Century scribe known as al-Baghdadi. (Charles Perry, trans. A Baghdad Cookery Book. Totnes, UK: Prospect Books, 2005). Yet, halva likely predates Islam, as ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablets from Mesapotamia describe similar confections, made as offerings for temples and festivals.
Halva (also transliterated as halwa) is the Arabic word for sweet. Indeed the dish is based on sugar or honey, sometimes mixed with a binding agent such as cornstarch or grain flour, and oil or butter fat. Judeo-Arab halva is often distinguished from halva made in other parts of Asia by the use of sesame oil, which imparts a memorable nutty flavor. Although halva is a general term that can describe a variety of wet and dry sweets, the Kitab al-tabikh only mentions the dry type under this category.
Most of the halva recipes from the Kitab al-tabikh do not mention the use of flour. Eight recipes are given in which sugar is dissolved in water, heated until thickened, cooled, then turned onto a tile and kneaded until the right consistency is reached. This basic approach could be embellished with fragrances and spices such as various nuts, dates, cardamom, camphor, musk, and rose water, which would be added during the cooking or kneading process. Once the halva was ready, it could be cut into individual servings or moulded into shapes. Engaging the senses through visual and aromatic appeal was thus part of the culinary experience.
The components of halva can be adjusted to serve as many or as few people as desired. As it is easily sliced into bite sized portions, and keeps well, the sweet lends itself to large scale entertaining. Before the second half of the 20th century, halva gatherings were common in the Konya region of Turkey, a practice that is said to date back to the Seljuq dynasty (1037-1194) (Nevin Halici, Sufi Cuisine. London: Saqi Books, 2005).
At many Jewish festivals and celebrations, halva is a familiar yet enticing presence, evoking memories of past occasions. Gil Marks considers the importance of such food associations in Jewish culture in The World of Jewish Desserts: "It [Jewish desserts] is food that evokes the spirit of a Jewish community as it celebrates its festivals and life-cycle events. It is a dish that conjures up the joy of millions of Sabbath dinners or resounds with the memory of the mellahs (Jewish quarters in Moslem countries), ghettos, and shtetlach, in which for millenia Jews struggled to eke out a living. It is tradition." (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). When Sephardic Jews serve halva for occasions such as Purim, the Sabbath, and Hannukah, they are using food to support a sense of cultural continuity, not only preserving tradition, but defining and reinforcing the experience as an inextricable part of Jewish cultural identity as well.
Continue reading Part II: Halva Travels East...India