* Prices may differ from that shown
I am amazed that there are still so many people in the UK who do not know what halva is, let alone eat it. This crumbly, sticky and delicious traditional sweet is perfect when served after dinner with a strong black coffee. I first found out about halva when I was doing my A-levels. There was a little health food shop that had a display cabinet full of unappealing looking slabs of cream/grey coloured substance that I was told was "halva". I had never heard of it. There were many types to buy from pistachio to chocolate swirled vanilla so I chose the latter out of curiosity.
My first taste was an eye-opener. The sweetness hit me first, halva is very very sweet. Then the texture which is gooey and crumbly all at the same time. Then the sesame seed kick of the Tahini which leaves a beautiful aftertaste. Having broken myself in via the more easily accessible chocolate type, I went back for the vanilla, the pistachio and the hazelnut. I loved them all. To this day, halva reminds me of good quality coffee because the bitterness of the coffee cuts through the sweetness of the halva (and removes it from your teeth).
WHAT IS IT?
Halva has many names (halawa, alva, xalwo, haleweh, hulwa, halvah, halava are just a few) and is a popular food in many countries across the Middle East, India, parts of Africa and Eastern Europe. It is a thick and very sweet confectionery product and can be made in a few ways, some of which include flours and some which include nuts or seeds. Basically halva is a sweet dessert food which is eaten in other parts of the world the way we would eat chocolate here. Halva is an ancient ethnic food which along with dried fruit is one of the first desserts on record.
Halva is generally found over here as a slightly crystalised slab in a little tray. To look at, halva is unspectacular. You will find it in little packets (sold by "Sunita") in health shops or if you are very lucky you will find it in blocks which are cut to the weight you require. The smell is delicious, think burnt sugar combined with sesame, and the experience of eating it is not comparable to anything else. It is a paradoxical substance which is healthy yet fattening, super sweet yet has a sharpness and it has a dryness to it despite being oily. You will have to taste it to see what I mean. A good halva melts in the mouth leaving a slightly grainy sweetness. It is very very moreish and as I said, goes great with a good quality strong coffee. You are meant to eat it in small quantities, I cut mine into little squares because it is so rich you really do not need to eat much of it.
TYPES OF HALVA:
The grain based halva is more gelatinous than the nut one, and is created with some type of flour as an ingredient, usually semolina. The main ingredients of a flour based halva would be clarified butter or Ghee, flour of some kind and sugar.
The nut/seed based halva is the one that you will find in health food stores and Holland & Barrett. It is crumbly and sticky and contains tahini which is a sesame seed paste. Sunflower seed, hazel and other nut butters can also be used. The main ingredients for nut based halva are tahini, and some kind of sugar, usually honey.
In parts of India and Africa, halva is found with many added ingredients such as beans, nuts and even carrots and yams. In the UK you will typically find chocolate, pistachio and vanilla halva unless you are lucky enough to know somebody who makes their own.
HOW TO STORE IT:
Due to the oil and sugar content, halva does not need to be refrigerated. During the summer though the halva will start to separate and melt under hot conditions so keep it cool. I store it wrapped in greaseproof paper in the fridge just to keep it solid. Storing it in cling film type wrap will make it oily and not allow it to breathe although a sandwich type box is fine to keep it in.
HOW TO USE IT:
Crumble it on ice cream. serve as an after dinner sweet (like mints but nicer), with a strong coffee (preferably black), crumbled onto yoghurt or just scoff it from the packet. I am still not sure how something so bland and beige can be so explosive and flavoursome but there you go.
High in calories and natural sugars, halva is a treat food to be eaten in small amounts. There is nothing nasty in terms of preservatives or flavouring in a traditional halva and it is packed with protein from the sesame seeds.
One of the first oils used by humans, sesame seeds are used for food as well as in traditional medicines for their many benefits. Sesame seeds are sources of omega-6 fatty acids, anti-oxidants, vitamins and dietary fibre. The seeds are especially rich in Oleic acid which helps to lower "bad" cholesterol and increases "good" cholesterol in the blood. Sesame is high in vitamin and mineral content, namely B-complex vitamins such as niacin, folic acid, thiamin (vitamin B1), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), and riboflavin. The seeds contain calcium, zinc, manganese, iron, magnesium, selenium, and copper so although halva is a very sweet food, it has a lot of healthy stuff packed into it.
Honey is a natural product containing 80% natural sugar, mainly in the form of glucose and fructose.
2% of honey is vitamins, protein and pollen and the rest is water. The vitamins found in honey include B6, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid and certain amino acids. Honey is also mineral rich and contains calcium, copper, zinc, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and iron.
Halva is high in calories. 100g of halva typically contains around 480 calories and 30 g of fat (healthy fat though). This is compariable to chocolate in terms of calorific value. However the inherant richness and sweetness of halva means that to gorge on it would be very tricky indeed. Halva made with sugar and not honey is suitable for vegans but the Sunita brand most commonly found over here is not. It is vegetarian though and lactose free.
Halva is a delicious and indulgent food, very sweet and rich but also full of benefits. There are many varieties available and Holland & Barrett sometimes stock a range. The Sunita one which is the brand more commonly found in the UK, is a vanilla halva and they also do a dark chocolate one which is incredibly gorgeous with a very strong bitter cocoa taste.
You can of course make your own Halva so I am including a recipe:
700g good quality honey
Choice of flavour (coffee, cocoa, vanilla)
340g light tahini paste -- well shaken or beaten to mix in any excess oil
Optional extras include chopped nuts, dried fruit etc
You will need to heat the honey slowly, stirring lots to prevent burning. If using a sugar thermometer, heat until the thermometer reaches 240 °F (115 °C) otherwise use the "soft ball" test used for toffee. Once you reach "soft ball" temperature, let the honey cool for a couple of minutes. Warm the light tahini and fold it into the hot honey. At this point add your nuts, cocoa etc.
Pour the mixture into an oiled tin or tray and leave it to cool. Then place in the fridge for a couple of days to allow the sugar crystals to form, giving halva the texture that it typical. That is it! You will need to cut it into smaller pieces with a sharp knife. I wrap mine in greaseproof paper and leave it in the fridge.
I am concerned how many people there are out there who don't know what halva even is, let alone eat it on a regular basis like moiself. Yes it is very concerning, you people are surely not living life to its full, maximising potential if you have yet to try halva. You may think you have reached the very peak of sweet culinary-mastery but you are mistaken! MISTAKEN! You simple fools!
I hope I'm not coming over too harshly.
Lucky for you, I am here to educate. Oh joy! I can wear my teaching cap and get my pointy stick out. Or not, as the case may be.
So halva, what is it?
Now here's a puzzler, because the term "halva" loosely translates to "sweetmeat" in, er, Arabic I think? And henceforth covers a vast range of different halva puddingy-type things in Middle-Eastern/Arabic countries, and in different cultures (Jewish, Indian and so on) which can vary significantly between types. For instance, a typical Indian halva might be made from something like semolina, polenta or even carrot with ghee and will be more like a pudding, and may or may not have spices or other flavourings. Whereas a Polish halva could be like a dry fudge made of sunflower seeds or peanuts. But then again, maybe not. Who freaking knows?! I know, it's baffling and wierd, but that's how it is. Let us accept and move on.
Because, pleasingly, "halva" when used in a Western context (ie here in blighty) does refer to one specific type, which is SESAME or tahini halva. This is the kind of halva you are likely to find in the UK, and incidentely, the type which you'll find in the Greek and Cypriot isles should you be on a jolly-holly.
Halva is ancient. And I don't mean it needs reading glasses and naps a lot. It is quite possibly the first sweet ever created (going back further than christ mi'lord and joseph etc, the only thing that trumps it is preserved fruit) so you are in effect eating history. How cool is that? Very, is your answer.
Very simple in its construct, halva is basically sesame seeds (toasted and crushed, or as a tahini) mixed to a paste with some kind of sugar solution such as honey, which is cooled and compressed into dense blocks.
It's a mess of contradiction (bit like me I suppose). Solid, yet crumbly. Dry and slightly crisp to bite into, yet moist and soft and buttery in the mouth. It can be intensely sweet, but offset by the nutty and somewhat bitter tang from the sesame seeds. The taste starts honey-sweet, then deliciously rich and creamy as it softens and melts in the mouth, leaving that distinct earthy, sesame flavour.
The texture takes some getting used to, starting almost like a dried-out fudge or nut butter but then becoming grainy and pastey, to a smooth, thick syrup as you eat. It is incredibly rich and indulgent, and should be treated as such. However tempting, eat too much at your peril. Consider it a more ethnic and rudimentary version of chocolate.
This stuff really is amazing. I don't think I have sufficient breadth of lexicon to adequately convey how truly fantastic it is. If you've never had it before, you'll probably be a little freaked out at first, which swiftly turns to curiosity untill from nowhere you realise you are ADDICTED and find yourself CRAVING it at ungodly hours and unsuitable occasions.
But the fun doesn't have to end there! Like chocolate, 'stuff' can be added to halva to satisfy the needs of fickle peeps like me, such as cocoa swirls, pistachio nuts and dried fruit.
Also, let us not forget the many realms of possibility available to us when it comes to consumption. You can eat halva pure and simple, perhaps with tea or strong coffee, you could crumble it and have it with fresh fruit, ice cream (I sometimes have it with Greek yoghurt and a drizzle of honey and it is beyond divine)or put it in a cake. Squeeze lemon juice on it, or sprinkle it with cinnamon. The possibilities! The excitement! It really is never-ending with halva. I have even heard that some super-coolio people put it on bread to make a halva sandwhich. Halva sandwhiches! Woo! Now they know how to live.
Now I can see how people would be easily turned off by halva. It is not for wusses. It is for people that are open to new experience/live on the periphery of sanity.
For starters, even I the halva-whore can admit it's not the most aesthetically appealing foodstuff, resembling a murky beige brick. Yes folks, it's U.G.L.Y. It ain't got no alibi.
Then, there are certain issues concerning both brand quality and storage. I have tried halvas from a few different brands and some are a bit dodgy, so perserverance is required in finding the good'uns. Think of it like a mission maybe. Maybe you are Tom Cruise. Maybe...
Irritatingly, improper storage (despite the fact that halva has a shelf life of over a year) can have disasterous results on the texture. The oil from the sesame can seperate leaving a greasy residue, or you find crunchy-crusty or chewy bits within the halva. Don't be afraid! This does happen from time to time, but it doesn't take anything from the flavour or means it has gone bad. It just means there are some heartless, reckless people who have been crossing the boundaries of improper halva-storing techniques. A cool, dry place is all it requires.
Halva also gives us the precious gift of nutrition. Ok, it is very fattening and calorific (obviously, otherwise it wouldn't taste so good) but it doesn't contain nasty trans/saturated fat and the sesame seeds give you a big whack of protein, along with calcium and zinc. On the calorie front, it's on a par with our other best friend chocolate, so expect around 500 calories and 30g fat per 100g. Though due to its richness, it'd be rather hard to eat loads of it without vomming.
It's also a suitable treat for vegans, lactose intolerant people etc since it has no dairy. By gum, it's a genius!
I have spied halva being sold in the world food parts of supermarkets, but your best bet is health food stores, such as Holland and Barratt. Prices will vary, but it'll be around the £1 mark for a 100g portion, good value methinks. Brands I can personally recommend if you see them are Cypressa and Sunita (though not the grape juice one! it's evil!).
I am in perpetual halva-heaven since I discovered a local shop selling a wide range of halva, including (swoon) chocolate-covered halva bars. I swear, I basically caught fire when I found those.
So if you haven't already, please please pweeeez give halva a try. It's a bit wierd, but for me it is the ultimate in sweet indulgences. You never know, it may be the start of a beautiful new relationship.
Halva is a favourite sweet food of mine and when there is some in the house - I struggle not to eat the whole block in one sitting, I find the stuff so addictive! My family know this fact rather well, so this year I got a lot of it for christmas and guess what? It's all gone! Fortunately there is a lot of it around in the world - whether it be a market stall in Damascus or supermarket in Europe, this stuff is widely available :).
Halva is prominent in all of the Middle East, Indian-Sub continent, Russia and Former USSR, Balkan countries and actually anything east of Germany and Austria where there is also a lot due to immigrants. It varies in texture, flavour and content.
The crumbly halva made from sesame or sun flower seeds tends to be my favourite, though I don't have much experience with the other types - cornstarch, semolina and the Turkish floss halva. The list doesn't end there with it also being possible to make it out of lentils, beans, pumpkins, carrots and even yams - none of which I've seen though to my knowledge.
On top of the various basis for the halva, there's also the flavourings which vary from halva to halva - making use of honey, nuts, dried fruits, dates, raisins, chocolate, vanilla, orange juice, pistachio and caramel. I tend to prefer the vanilla and I love the ones with raisins in too.
It's so sweet that it definitely can't be very good for you and is probably more fattening than you would like to know. It rarely if ever comes with any calorific details, so I think we'll just skip it!
A sweet confection popular across the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and the Balkans.