Halva refers to many types of dense, sweet confections, served across the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, West Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Malta and the Jewish world.
The term halva (Arabic: حلوى / ALA-LC: ḥalwà), meaning “sweet”, is used to describe two types of desserts:
- Flour-based – This type of halva is slightly gelatinous and made from grain flour, typically semolina. The primary ingredients are clarified butter, flour, and sugar.
- Nut-butter-based – This type of halva is crumbly and usually made from tahini (sesame paste) or other nut butters, such as sunflower seed butter. The primary ingredients are nut butter and sugar.
Halva may also be based on numerous other ingredients, including sunflower seeds, various nuts, beans, lentils, and vegetables such as carrots, pumpkins, yams, and squashes.
Types of Halva
Most types of halva are relatively dense confections sweetened with sugar or honey. Their textures, however, vary. For example, semolina-based halva is gelatinous and translucent, while sesame-based halva is drier and more crumbly.
This type is made by frying the flour such as semolina in oil into a roux and cooking it with a sugary syrup. This is popular in Iran,Turkey, Somalia, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
This halva, produced and served in India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Pakistan and surrounding countries (different versions of it are also found in Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Montenegro, Macedonia and Turkey), is usually made with wheat semolina, sugar or honey, and butter or vegetable oil. Raisins,dates, other dried fruits, or nuts such as almonds or walnuts, are often added to semolina halva. The halva is very sweet with a gelatinous texture similar to polenta; the added butter gives it a rich mouthfeel. The standard proportions of semolina halva are one part fat (a vegetable oil or butter), two parts semolina, two parts sweetening agent (e.g. sugar or honey) and four parts water. The semolina is sautéed in the fat while a syrup is being made of the sweetener and water. Then the two are mixed carefully while hot, and any extra ingredients are added. At this point, the halva is off-white to light beige, and rather soft. Depending on recipe and taste, it can be cooked a bit further, which makes it darker and firmer, or left to settle as is.
In India, though semolina halva is considered to be essentially a “Northern” confection, it is also quite popular in South India. A prominent South Indian version of halva (or alvaa in Tamil) is from Tirunelveli, a city in the state of Tamil Nadu. Another semolina preparation widely enjoyed throughout South India called kesari or kesari-bath originates from the state of Karnataka.
In Pakistan and India, carrots (for gajar halwa), mung beans (for moong dal halwa) or bottle gourds (for doodi halwa) are also used instead of semolina. Prepared with condensed milk and ghee, without semolina to bind it together, the end result has a moist, yet flaky, texture when freshly prepared.
Cornflour halva, popular in Greece, has many variations. The farsala recipe is the most well known. It is quite sweet, with caramel-like syrup.
This rice flour and coconut milk halva is common fare on the streets of Zanzibar.
This type of halva is made by grinding oily seeds, such as sesame, to a paste, and then mixing with hot sugar syrup cooked to hard-crack stage. This type is popular in the eastern Mediterranean and Balkan regions, in countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Russia, Greece and Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Iran, Lebanon, Macedonia, Albania, Syria, Central Asia, Southern India, the Caucasus region and Turkey. It is also popular in Algeria and on the central Mediterranean islands of Malta.
Sesame halva is popular in the Balkans, Poland, Middle East, and other areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The primary ingredients in this confection are sesame butter or paste (tahini), and sugar, glucose or honey. Soapwort (called ‘erq al halaweh in Arabic; çöven in Turkish), egg white, or marshmallow root are added in some recipes, to stabilise the oils in the mixture or create a distinctive texture for the resulting confection.
Other ingredients and flavourings such as pistachio nuts, cocoa powder, orange juice, vanilla, or chocolate are often added to the basic tahini and sugar base.
Sunflower halva, popular in countries in Eastern Europe including Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine, is made of sunflower seeds instead of sesame.
Pişmaniye (Turkish) or floss halva is a traditional sweet, prepared in Kocaeli, Turkey, made by flossing thin strands of halva into a light confection. Made primarily of wheat flour and sugar, the strands are continuously wrapped into a ball shape and then compressed. The result is a halva with a light consistency, similar to cotton candy. Floss halva can be found in regular and pistachio flavours, and there are brands with halal or kosher certifications.
A similar pistachio-based version of floss halva is popular in North India. It tends to be slightly denser and is often referred to as patisa or sohan papdi. In Chinese cuisine, a floss-like candy similar to pismaniye or pashmak halva, known as dragon beard candy, is eaten as a snack or dessert.
A raw version of halva also has become popular amongst proponents of raw food diets. In this version, a mixture of raw sesame tahini, raw almonds, raw agave nectar and salt are blended together and frozen to firm.
Halva is the most common modern English spelling and the transliteration from most Balkan languages. Other transliterations include ħelwa (Maltese), xalwo (Somali), halvah (Hebrew), halwa or halwi (Arabic), helva (Turkish), chałwa (Polish) and halva (Hindustani).
The Hebrew-derived spelling, halvah (Hebrew: חלבה), may at times be used to refer specifically to the kosher variety.
The word halawa (حلاوة) in Arabic means ‘sweetness’, while the word halwa (حلوى) means sweets or candy. The word halva comes from the Arabic word halwa; the root word is hilwa meaning sweet.
Halva, hallvë in Albanian, is usually eaten as a dessert-based meal, that is, with no entrees or appetisers consumed prior. The majority of halva in Albania is flour halva, although home-cooked semolina halva and shop-produced sesame halva are also consumed. Wheat flour is usually used, although cornflour halva is also common.
Halva is available in Argentina, especially from confectioners of Syrian-Lebanese or Armenian origin. In the 1940s, a halva substitute named Mantecol made with peanut butter was introduced by Río Segundo’s Georgalos, a Greek immigrant family firm. It became a popular product; in the 1990s, the brand was sold to global firm Cadbury Schweppes, which altered the recipe. Georgalos now manufactures the original product under the name Nucrem. Both versions are available in candy stores and supermarkets.
In Bahrain, the most popular form of halva is a jelly-styled sweet also known as halwa Bahraini in neighbouring countries. And it is not like the halva that in most countries is based on sesame paste and in Kuwait called rahash.
Various kinds of halua (Bengali: হালুয়া) are prepared across Bangladesh and neighbouring Bengali-speaking regions of Kolkata (Calcutta). Some of the most common types of halua include semolina (সুজির হালুয়া shujir halua), carrot (গাজরের হালুয়া gajorer halua), chickpea (বুটের হালুয়া buṭer halua), flour (নেশেস্তার হালুয়া neshestar halua) almond (বাদামের হালুয়া badamer halua), and papaya (পেঁপের হালুয়া pẽper halua). Halua is usually eaten as a rich dessert, but it is not uncommon for Bangladeshis to eat it for breakfast with traditional breads, such as puris (পুরি puri) or parathas (পরোটা pôroṭa)..
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Halva is widely used in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is available in different forms and flavours.
In Brazil, which is home to the largest Syrian-Lebanese population outside the Middle East, plain and chocolate tahini halva can be found in cans in most supermarkets, while fancy varieties are sold in specialised food shops.
In Bulgaria, the term halva (халва) is used for several varieties of the dessert. Tahini halva (тахан халва) is most popular and can be found in all food stores. Two different types of tahini halva are made – one using sunflower seed tahini and another using sesame seed tahini. Traditionally, the regions of Yablanitsa and Haskovo are famous for their halva. Semolina halva (грис халва) is made at home and can be found only in some pastry stores. White halva (бяла халва), which is made of sugar, is popular on the last Sunday before Lent (Sirni Zagovezni; Сирни заговезни), celebrated with customs, in one of which a string is tied to a piece of white halva and all the children, while standing in a circle must catch the turning piece of halva using only their mouths.
Almost all types of halva in Bulgaria are flavoured with essence of Good King Henry (чувен)
Halva is a sweet that is consumed in Croatia. It is not uncommon to come across the specialty in the regions of Slavonia, Kordun, Lika and Baranja or regions that at one time came into contact with the Ottoman empire. Halva is especially popular in Slavonia during kirvaj or local church fairs.
In Egypt, halawa or halawa tahiniya has many varieties, such as plain blocks, and fine, fibrous halawa called halawa hair. Other varieties with pine nuts, pistachios, and almonds exist in big blocks or packed consumer portions, or more recently, energy bars (chocolate bar size). Halawa is a very popular sweet enjoyed by many Egyptians. It is eaten for breakfast and supper, and enjoyed with hot bread, sandwiches, and sometimes with the Arabic equivalent of clotted cream. It is a staple food that is enjoyed all over the country, as it does not need special storage conditions, and can be kept in ambient temperature with no risk of spoilage.
Greece and Cyprus
In Greece and Cyprus, the term halvas (χαλβάς) is used for both varieties of the dessert. Sesame halva was produced in classical times. The standard recipe for semolina halva is referred to as “1:2:3:4”, as it calls for one unit of oil, two of semolina, three of sugar and four of water.
Various types of halva from India are distinguished by the region and the ingredients from which they are prepared. The most famous include sooji (or suji) halva (semolina), aate ka halva (wheat), moong dal ka halva (mung bean halva), gajar halva (carrot), dudhi halva, chana daal halwa (chickpeas), and Satyanarayan halwa (variation of suji halwa, with the addition of detectable traces of banana), and kaju halva (cashew nut).
Tirunelveli, a city in Tamil Nadu state, is called “Halwa City”. In Thiruvaiyaru, Andavar Sweets was very famous for “Ashoka Halwa” for past 40 years.
In the state of Kerala, halva is known as aluva. Significant Arab and Middle Eastern influence in this region resulted from ancient trade routes from here via the Arabian Sea and Arab traders who also later settled in Kerala. The Turkish delight, lokum, is very similar to this aluva, and Kozhikode, Kerala, is famous for unique exotic halwa, which is popularly known as kozhikkodan halwa. It comes in various flavours, such as ghee, coconut, cashew, date, tender coconut, pineapple, jackfruit, etc. Kozhikkodan halwa is mostly made from maida (highly refined wheat). However, karutha aluva (black halwa), made from rice, is also very popular.
Kashi halva, made from winter melon or ash gourd, is a famous and traditional sweet of Karnataka, which mainly makes a regular appearance in traditional Brahmin weddings.
Halvardeh is the Iranian term for tahini-based halva, and may or may not include whole pistachios. Ardeh is processed sesame in the form of paste, usually sweetened with syrup.
In Iran, halva usually refers to a related confection made from wheat flour and butter and flavoured with rose water. The final product has a dark brown colour. The halva is spread thin on a plate till it dries into a paste. Halva usually is served for funerals and such ceremonies, often with almonds or coconut shavings on the top.
One variation from the Caspian region of Gilan is called asali halva (honey halva). It is different from other types of halva prepared in Iran, since it is based on rice flour rather than semolina, and instead of sugar, it is sweetened with honey.
Heavily sesame-flavoured tahini halvah (חלבה) is very popular in Israel and among people of Jewish background all over the world. Spelled “halvah” in English, it usually comes in slabs or small packages, and is available in a wide variety of flavours, chocolate and vanilla being very common. The halvah is almost always parve, meaning it does not contain any meat or dairy ingredients, ensuring it can be eaten with/after either milk or meat dishes according to the laws of Kashrut. Israeli halvah will usually not contain wheat flour or semolina, but will contain sesame tahini, glucose, sugar, vanilla and saponaria root extracts (soapwort), which are not usually found in other recipes. It is often served as a breakfast component at Israeli hotels, though it is not usually part of an Israeli breakfast, and it is even used in specialty ice-cream.
Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan
n the region of the Levant, which includes Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, halawa (Arabic: حلاوة) is typically the sesame or tahini-based form, which can be flavoured in various ways, and may include pistachios, almonds or chocolate. A large quantity of halawa is exported from Lebanon throughout the world.
Libya and Tunisia
In Libya and Tunisia, it is called halwa shamiya (Arabic: حلوى شامية) or simply shamiya, which means Levantine sweet, whereas the word halawa is never used.
In Lithuania, it is called chalva. It is widely used as a snack and sold packed in small pieces (70–150 grams). Most popularly made with sunflower seeds and peanuts.
Republic of Macedonia
In the Republic of Macedonia, alva (Macedonian: алва, alva) refers to a sweet which comes in a few varieties. Alva made from tahini (sesame or sunflower) (Таан алва) is most used in Macedonia. Most popular is the alva from Negotino and Super Alva from Skopje. Alva from semolina (алва од гриз) is made only at home. Izmirska halva (Измирска алва) brought back from Izmir Turkey, of which large areas are populated by Macedonians, is a chocolate type of alva made from flour, cocoa, sugar and peanuts. This alva is also made at home. Alva is also popular in the City of Prilep and surrounds, which have been famous for food production since pre-Ottoman times.
In Malta, the term ħelwa tal-Tork (English: Turk’s sweet) is used to refer to a tahini-based block confection sometimes containing pistachios or almonds. It forms part of the Maltese cuisine, and is a common sweet snack on the islands, especially served at the end of wedding celebrations and during feasts.
In Myanmar, it is called halawa, and is associated with the port town of Pathein in the Ayeyarwady Region. Burmese halawa usually contains poppy seeds and is brown in colour. It is popular as a gift item.
Halva in Pakistan is similar to that in India. There are various types of halva (Urdu: حلوہ) category sweets in Pakistan, distinguished by the region and the content from which they are prepared. Most common are the ones made from semolina, ghee and sugar, garnished with dried fruits and nuts. Carrot halwa (called gaajar ka halwa) is also popular, as is halva made from tender bottle gourds and chanay ki daal |” چنی کی دال “. Karachi halva is a specialty dessert from Karachi, Sindh. In Urdu, the word halva حلوہ denotes “sweets”, while a pastry maker is called Halvai حلواى. Also from southern part of Punjab province, the Sohan Halwa is famous in the country. Equally famous is Habshi halwa, a dark brown milk-based halwa introduced in the sub-continent..
Halva in Poland is sesame-based. It is not usually made at home, but it is sold under various brands in the form of large or small bars, as well as boxed hard mass.
Romania and Moldova
In Romania and Moldova, the term halva is used to refer to a sunflower-based block confection sometimes containing pistachios, almonds or chocolate. In the Republic of Moldova, it is mostly referred to as halva de răsărită; in Romania, it is known as halva de floarea soarelui.
Halva (халва) is used in Russia as a traditional dessert. Sometimes Russian children are given halva as candy.
Halva, generally is called alva (Алва) in Serbian, while semolina based is called ćetena alva (ћетен алва) and sesame based is called tan alva (тан алва) or tehen alva (техен алва). It is common to the whole region. Alva is a typical sweet in local church fairs around Serbia. Also, sesame-based halva imported from Greece or the Republic of Macedonia is common in Serbian supermarkets. In Serbia of the 2000s, halva is losing its popularity to other types of sweets and candies and more and more is becoming something of a luxury..
Halva, called helava in Slovene, is a sweet widely consumed in Slovenia. It became popular there when Slovenia had contact with the Ottoman Empire. Slovenes mostly eat it while drinking morning or afternoon Turkish coffee.
In Somalia, halva is known as xalwo (halwo). A staple of Somali cuisine, it is a popular confection served during special occasions, such as Eid celebrations or wedding receptions. Xalwo is made from sugar, cornflour, cardamom powder, nutmeg powder, and ghee. Peanuts are also sometimes added to enhance texture and flavour.
Halva, called Aluva in Sinhalese, is a typical sweet specially made for the traditional Sri Lankan New Year Festival (Sinhala and Hindu Aluth Awurudda) in April. It is often made from rice flour, either with sugar (seeni aluwa) or treacle (pani aluwa). Cashew nuts are added for extra taste.
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan
Soft sesame halva is made from sugar syrup, egg whites, and sesame seeds. Solid sesame halva is made from pulled sugar, repeatedly stretched to give a white colour; prepared sesame is added to the warm sugar and formed on big trays. In Tajikistan, as well as in Uzbekistan, the local name is lavz (Лавз).
The term helva is used by Turkish people, to describe tahin (crushed sesame seeds), flour, or semolina halva, called tahin helvası, un helvası, and irmik helvası, respectively. Yaz helvası is made of almond or walnut. Semolina halva (garnished with pine nuts) has a cultural significance in Turkish folk religion and is the most common type. Traditionally, halva prepared with flour (un helvası) is cooked and served upon the death of a person. In addition, some sweets and desserts are also called helva, such as pamuk helva or koz helva, a sweet-like dessert which is widespread in Turkey. In Safranbolu, koz helva is also called “leaf-halva”. Turkish halva is inspired by the Armenian version. Assyrians also consume Turkish halva as a traditional dessert.
In the USA, it is found in ethnic Indian, Jewish, Argentine, or Middle-Eastern stores. Besides being imported from the Middle East or India (or Mantecol imported into Argentine stores), one can find the version manufactured in the US by Joyva in Brooklyn.