I'm going to take a rare break from foods that I got at the Union Market in Washington, D.C. this week. This one I found in the ethnic food section at the local Hannaford grocery in the Burlington, Vermont area.
Halvah is a sweet confection. While it's eaten across large swaths of Asia, much of Europe, and parts of Northern Africa, it's most associated with Balkan, Jewish, and Middle Eastern cuisines. Its roots are lost in time. Some say it's hundreds of years old. Others say 3,000 years old. The websites I checked seemed to agree that it was probably first made in either India or Turkey. Because it's consumed in so many parts of the world, it correspondingly, goes by many names Halvah, halva, helva, aluva, chalva, and many others. Even "halva" comes from a Yiddish word which is itself based on a Turkish word which is then derived from an Arabic name. I'm using the "halvah" spelling because that's what was on the product I bought and ate, and this has become the most common American rendition of the name.
Halvah's form is also fairly diverse. There are two main types. Flour-based and nut butter-based. The former is usually made from semolina, while the latter is usually made from sesame seed paste (tahini), or sunflower seed paste. But folks don't stop there. Some make versions of it which are based on lentils, nuts, yams, pumpkins, squash, and beans. Even carrots are occasionally used as the main ingredient, which, given my opinion of that repulsive orange food, seems like a terrible, terrible idea. But getting back to the two most common kinds, the flour-based one is gelatinous in texture, while the nut butter-based kind is usually dry and crumbly.
Even a brief look around the internet revealed plenty of recipes for making your own halvah. I, of course, chose the lazy route of picking out a pre-packaged kind. I was able to find two flavors, both from Joyva Corporation, which is the main U.S. producer (it's based out of Brooklyn, NY). I had both the original flavor and the chocolate-covered sort. The packages I purchased were the "King Size" bars--3.5 ounces (99 grams). (The regular sized ones are about half that.) They weren't terribly expensive, being about $1.75 per bar. The original flavor one looked like a light brown candy bar. The texture was slightly flaky, but it also kind of reminded me of fudge. It was pretty good--nicely sweet. Not as tasty as a top-level candy bar, but good in its own right. Not surprisingly, the chocolate-covered one was much the same, only a little better. Encasing sweet foods in chocolate usually yields positive results, and the halvah was no exception. I recommend either of these, and will buy them again if I get the chance. Also, I'll be on the lookout for the flour-based type, to compare and contrast.
Despite its popularity, halvah has acquired some negative cultural connotations. In some Middle Eastern countries it's a traditional food served during burial ceremonies and anniversaries. In Egypt it's apparently a common food brought to prisoners when relatives come for visits. Finally, if a Greek person says, "Ante re halva" to you, it's probably meant as an insult, alleging that you're a coward and/or chubby. I suppose they have a different mean saying if you're both wimpy AND thin.