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Halva load of this then...
on 28 May 2013
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.
Summary: A delicious alternative to chocolate.