The Many Faces of Halva

Anyone who has ever visited a Hare Krishna Temple feast, or a Hare Krishna restaurant will have undoubtedly tasted the ultra-famous semolina halva. The memory of its sweet, warm, moist, spiritually-infused ‘comfort food-iness’ will no doubt have lingered long after all traces of the buttery ecstacy have left the lips.

warm halva:

You may not know just how widespread the halva story actually is, and how much world history there is to it. Halva is one of those dishes found from the Balkans to India and claimed as its own by practically every culture and country in between.

If the halva in the photo above looks familiar, this proves my point. Apart from the fancy shape, it looks just like what I used to cook and serve at Gopal’s Restaurant in Melbourne (minus the custard) but in fact, it’s a Turkish version, called helva.

Here in Greece, halva is one of the main Lenten sweets, especially the variety made with tahini and sold in block or brick form. This type of halva is called Makedonikos Halvas (Macedonian halva). It is sold by weight and comes plain, flavoured with chocolate, or studded with nuts. Greeks like to eat Makedonikos halvas sprinkled with lemon juice and cinnamon.

Here’s some Makedonikos Halvas I espied at the Athens central markets the other day. This stuff is exported everywhere.

Makedonikos Halvas:

There are at least five or six other versions of halva in Greece, though. The most interesting recipes are the obscure cheese-based halvas found in some parts of northern Greece as well as in several Aegean islands.

Tasty, too, are the grain-based halvas from Thessaly. One old recipe, called sousamohalva, calls for sesame paste (tahini), wheat starch, chick peas and sugar.

Farsala, near Volos, is famous for its smooth-textured halva known either as sapoune or as Halva Farsalon. It is made with rice flour and is opaque and unctuous with a crisp tasty topping of burnt sugar.

My host returned from work last night and proudly presented me with a box of Halva Farsalon that he had bought on the way home from an exclusive sweet shop. I photographed it this morning before it was ‘dispached’. This is it:

Halva Farsalon:

There is the hard, white kommat halvas, very similar to nougat, which is studded with walnuts, and which is found in bakeries in Salonika. Halva tis Rinas is a baked semolina version, the most common kind of halva and the one usually found in the home kitchen.

Although halva is found all over Greece, it seems most likely that the etymology and perhaps the origins of the dish are Turkish. According to the “Classical Turkish Dictionary,” the word ‘halva’ in Turkish means sweet, but has evolved over time to be associated mainly with the name of the particular sweet in question.

I’ve become so enlivened about this subject (food history fascinates me) that I’ve compiled a complete essay on the subject of halva. Read it…
Posted by Kurma on 17/1/07; 12:11:01 AM

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